ways to treat misbehaved children
“For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.” Thus wrote the philosopher Plato in the 4th century BC, thereby instilling the idea that character is built upon self-control.
This assumption about the importance of self-control has profoundly shaped how we think about behavior, including that of our children. If only they had willpower and good character, they would be able to behave well and resist temptation, right?
Wrong. Many years of research and experience as a psychologist have shown me how misleading this notion is, even as experiments like the famous “marshmallow test” seemed to confirm it. Rather than needing more self-control, our children need better self-regulation—a way to understand and manage their stress and energy—to succeed in life.
What exactly is different about self-regulation? As I explain in my new book, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, self-regulation is about recognizing when we are over-stressed, identifying our sources of stress, reducing their intensity, finding places of calm, and learning ways to rest and recover. Understanding the distinction between self-regulation and self-control is essential to understanding how to help our children.
I’ve seen hundreds of children and their parents in my professional capacity and have never once seen a “bad” kid. Every single child, when met with understanding and patience, can be guided along a trajectory that leads to a rich and meaningful life. But stereotypes of the “difficult child” too often color our views, as do the dreams, frustrations, and anxieties we suffer as parents. When we impart negative judgments on children, we are just mistakenly shifting blame for our own emotions and insecurities onto our children’s “nature.”
Instead, we need to understand the science of stress. New advances in neuroscience are unlocking the secrets of why we behave the way we do and, more to the point, why it is so hard at times to behave the way we want. The limbic system plays an important role here, as it is the source of our strong emotions and urges; it also plays a critical role in memory formation, as well as the emotional associations we have with our memories. This system contributes to how we respond to threats and worries, but it is largely out of our conscious control, including the control of children.
Children who are in a heightened state of emotional arousal can have very sensitive limbic systems, where their brains are primed to respond to threats even when none exist. For example, experiments have shown that children who are chronically over-aroused will label neutral faces as hostile.
This means that children who react with hostility or by shutting down are likely showing the outward signs of an inward experience of stress overload. If we don’t recognize the signs, figure out what is stressing them, and help them to cope—instead of using blame, threats, or punishments—we will continue to make matters worse for them, rather than better.
A parent’s reaction to a child’s stress is important to their later ability to self-regulate, starting in the first years of their life. Nature intends for human parents to play a close, nurturing role with their offspring and to take advantage of the “interbrain”—the shared intuitive channel of communication between a parent and child that is maintained by touch, shared gaze, voice, and, most of all, shared emotion. This is what helps a stressed child develop a way of self-soothing that will stay with them and allow them to cope with stressors in their lives.
Providing warm, nurturing care early in life can go a long way toward stress management. But that doesn’t mean that parents are solely responsible for their child’s ability to adapt. Even kids who have enjoyed warm, nurturing parenting can have trouble with self-regulation. That’s why it’s important to understand how it works and how we parents can help.
Here are the steps I outline in my book that can help parents deal with problematic behavior or anxiety in their children more effectively:
1. Recognize when your children are over-stressed
A lot of your work as a parent involves learning how to understand the meaning of behaviors that you would otherwise find troubling or irritating. If you learn to read the signs and recognize them for what they are—a signal of a system on overload—you will be able to resist assigning blame or labels to your children. Reframing your children’s behavior as a reaction to stress rather than willful misbehavior, and learning to listen to your children and to observe them with curiosity, is the first and perhaps most important step in self-regulation.
2. Reduce those stressors
It’s amazing how simply reducing sources of stress can change a child’s behavior quickly. I once saw a child who was sensitive to noise, light, and textures labeled as a “problem child” by his teacher, only to have that opinion completely reversed when she realized that dimming the classroom lights changed his demeanor drastically. Sadly, the child had had to endure her judgment, communicated through raised voices and hardened facial expressions, for some time prior. In fact, she’d also labeled his father and grandfather as difficult.
The same thing can happen to parents who don’t pay attention to what stresses their children and bring it into their conscious awareness. Once sources of stress have been identified, it’s much easier to either help our kids avoid them or to mitigate them, as best we can—perhaps by moving our dinner hour earlier or dimming the lights or giving them a hug after they’ve failed a test.
Sometimes, reducing our children’s stress involves understanding what stresses us out and how it impacts our behavior. Learning how to soothe our own stress can help us self-regulate our emotions and lead to less reactivity toward our kids when they are suffering, as well as provide important role modeling for them.