Ask Dr. Brownwyn
8 Things You Can Do When Your Child Misbehaves
- Written By
- Dr. Bronwyn Charlton
- Loris Lora
After all, discipline is about teaching, not about punishment, so finding ways to teach our children appropriate behavior is essential for their healthy development.
If you missed Why Kids Misbehave you may want to start there for common obstacles that get in the way of disciplining effectively and what neuroscience tells us about your child's developing brain.
It’s human to seek autonomy and agency.
Young children have a hard time with limits, because they’re human, and humans have a drive for autonomy and self-agency. The fact, for example, that wearing a seatbelt isn’t a personal choice, but a finable offense is irksome to many, even though they’d probably wear one anyway. When forced to comply with rules or limits imposed on us by others it’s normal to feel frustrated, even resentful at times, but that’s not something we have any control over, since feelings and even thoughts are automatic, often unconscious, and human.
So, it’s no wonder that young children who have almost no autonomy or control over their lives, fight the hardest for it. Really, what distinguishes them from us, isn’t necessarily the big feelings, but the fact that thanks to our fully-developed and integrated brains, we’re supposedly able to manage them, so that we don’t end up doing or saying things we might regret. Realistically, though, we can’t expect small children to show logic and reason, or the self-discipline of adults, since their capacity for self-regulation won’t be fully developed until their mid-twenties.
Often, it’s not even a given with adults.
Until children’s brains are strong enough to resist temptations, make good choices, and consider the consequences of their actions, regardless of how they’re feeling in the moment or the temptation, their job is to push limits and fight for control and our job is to be the calm and confident leader who keeps them safe and secure, and is the anchor in their storm.
The most challenging times are the biggest opportunities for growth.
We need to reframe our children’s worst behaviors – hitting, defying, ignoring, screaming, begging, insulting, etc., – as signs not that we’re failing as parents, or that they’re going to be sociopaths in the future, but as signals that they need help getting back to the land of rational thinking and logic, through our calm confident leadership, clear limits, and connection. The idea that to the contrary, in these moments, yelling, hurling insults or threatening punishments helps children learn how to do better in the future is totally misguided. When brains perceive threat – and being yelled at or intimidated by someone that’s supposed to be a secure base will always feel threatening to a child, the Amygdala shuts down connection to the prefrontal cortex, which means no learning, rational thought, logic, or contemplation of the consequences of their actions can happen.
Guiding children toward becoming independent and thriving adults requires empathic limits, connection, and guidance. Use discipline to grow your child’s self-discipline, not to force their compliance, by giving them lots of practice using the skills they’ll need for the future.
Focus on the things you can control when your child misbehaves.
We can’t control our children’s behavior, but we can control how we influence it through our responses, the quality of our connection, modifications we make to the environment, limits we set and carry out.
Connection is an incredibly important part of discipline and the basis of your influence. Your child needs to always feel loved unconditionally, regardless of their behavior as well as connected to you, to want to cooperate.
Without connection, all you’ve got is increasing frustration, escalation and forced compliance.
Anticipating challenging behavior from our children and accepting it as normal and expected, thanks to their still developing brain, helps to take the power out of it and make it feel less egregious or personal. Which means, it makes it easier to respond calmly and with genuine compassion, no matter how irrational or intense or aggressive our child becomes, because with perspective, we’re more likely to “get it.”
We can reframe a or oth er unwanted behavior as a communication or a “signal” of “the storm” of emotion that’s brewing inside of our child and focus more on our own reactions than whatever it is they’re doing, since we recognize the significance of being “their calm.”
Just as we feel our children’s stress and upset, they feel ours. Thanks to mirror neurons, our nervous systems are in a constant-communication-loop, and our capacity to stay calm and self-regulate is what enables them to, as well. Co-regulation builds your child’s capacity to self-regulate on their own eventually, so they won’t be in this dependent position forever. When their brain flips into “fight or flight” mode or even when the emotions they’re feeling have simply gotten the better of them, they rely on you, to “soothe” their nervous system, because they just can’t do it on their own yet.
Perhaps come up with a mantra, or something like, “Bring it,” to remind you in the stressful moments, to show your child -- through your tone, expressions, gestures, and body language -- that you can handle their big feelings. That you’ve got this and are there for them.
“Name it to tame it,” a phrase coined by Dr. Dan Siegel is one way to increase your chances of staying calm enough to help your dysregulated child in these situations. The recommendation comes from decades of sound research showing that in order to get some distance from all-consuming negative emotions, it helps to notice them in our mind and body, and name them out loud, since doing so requires re-connecting to our upstairs, “thinking” brain, which soothes our Amgydala and gets us back in control of our emotions.
Let your child feel seen and heard and understood by normalizing their big, angry, jealous, resentful, frustrated, disappointed, etc. etc. feelings. Feel empathy for the feeling (e.g., not wanting the fun to end,) while still carrying out the limit (e.g., bedtime). “I know it’s so hard to stop playing games when we’re all having such a good time. It’s the worst. I wish we could just play all night long and never sleep. But we all have to rest our bodies so we can have a good day tomorrow too, so it’s time to pause the game for now. Let me know if you need my help.”
When it comes to children’s challenging behavior, it’s imperative to start with empathy and connection.
One of our most important jobs as parents is to step in as our child’s prefrontal cortex until theirs is strong enough to take over on its own. That means being the adult and staying calm and regulated and mindful of our responses. But that doesn’t mean forgetting what it feels like to be a child and not wanting to do something you have to or thinking that everyone is always telling you what to do. In fact, those feelings are probably pretty easy to relate to even as adults!
Empathy opens the door to connection and connection encourages cooperation and learning.
Showing empathy doesn’t mean being permissive. You can still insist your child turns off the iPad at the agreed-upon-time, at the same time that you let them know you “get” how frustrating and disappointing it is to have to pause a movie before it’s finished. In fact, that’s exactly what authoritative parenting (aka intentional, mindful, gentle, positive, etc.) is all about. Being calm, responsive, warm, and loving, while at the same time clearly setting and carrying out limits and expectations that grow the skills our kids will need for the future.
As your child’s parent, there’s no question you hold the ultimate authority to act on their behalf, until they’re ready to do so themselves. So, while it’s positive to welcome all of your child’s feelings and allow them space to share their opinions, test limits and grasp at independence, stepping into the fray, by engaging in power struggles erodes your authority and feeds the flames. Power struggles assume equal power distribution between the two parties involved, since they are in effect fighting for it, but that shouldn’t ever be the case with a parent and child.
You don’t have to argue your point, rationalize, or justify a limit you’ve set or rule you’ve stated, even when it’s upsetting to your child. Presumably, you did so for their benefit, health, or safety, and it’s okay that they’re not happy with it. In reality, it’s the very feelings that limits provoke (e.g., disappointment, frustration, anger) that your child needs help managing, which will only happen thanks to practice through your guidance.
Your child’s challenging behavior is a signal that their feelings and emotions have overwhelmed their ability to think and cooperate. So, the next time this happens, take a moment to get curious and to understand the “why” behind their behavior. Are they overstimulated? Do they have the self-control to be able to carry out your expectations? Even when it seems like they’re too old to be doing something, or that they “should” know better, when we chase the why and consider things like temperament, the situation, how tired they are, whether we’ve been carrying out limits consistently or not , etc., it becomes easier to see their behavior through a more accurate lens and understand why, they’re having such a hard time of it at that point in time, and need our help, not our anger.
If you’re confused or conflicted about the limits and rules at your house, then your child is as well, and ironically kids need the containment of limits and guardrails to feel secure and stay regulated. Keep the number of limits and rules short and age-appropriate and relevant to your values (e.g., getting good sleep) but know that without them, kids have too much power and start to feel out-of-control. Your child does best when they know that no matter how much they push, test, beg or meltdown, the adults around them will stay calm and confident and carry out whatever limit they’ve set, since without them, it can feel impossible for them to control their emotions, behaviors, or bodies.
A child’s rigid and relentless out-of-control behavior at bedtime, for example, is almost never about them really needing another kiss or another song or the wrinkles in their blanket smoothed out, but about their being totally out-of-control and needing their calm and confident parent to carry out bedtime, hold space for their emotions and call it a night.
Really, the most important limits, rules and boundaries are those having to do with health and safety. And, although naturally, they’ll vary from family to family, they must be clearly defined, concrete and well understood by everyone involved. Does your child know what the rule is about snacks in your house? What about mealtime? How does bedtime go? What are the rules around hygiene? Do they take a bath or shower every night?
No doubt, parenting young children is very hard, but the skills they need to thrive develop in the context of responsive relationships, structure and limits, not punishments and yelling. Through effective discipline (e.g., connection, problem solving, routines, limits, and scaffolding) we give children the chance to practice the necessary self-regulation and executive functions skills they’ll need to be able to have self-discipline in the future.