There are times when it’s necessary to confront inappropriate behavior. If your children engage in thoughtless acts, you need to bring their attention to their thoughtlessness in the here and now. For instance, if your child hits someone or behaves in a bratty manner, it’s imperative that you respond in a swift and engaging manner. How you do so will depend on your child’s level of maturity.
In the case of a toddler, you might gently hold them and be very present with them until they calm themselves. Because they can’t be expected to contain themselves at this age, you do the containing for them. On the other hand, if your teen talks to you in a rude way, you need to become present with them in a manner that’s not combative. Sometimes it’s appropriate to issue your children something akin to a reprimand, while at other times it’s better to approach them in fun, with gentleness, or with praise and positive reinforcement. At other times your children need you to help shape them by simply bearing witness as they figure things out for themselves. Song, dance, acting, and play can also be effective in helping your children understand the appropriate way to conduct themselves. In these and other ways, your children internalize the norms you ask them to live by. Living in a contained manner then becomes a habit, enhancing their natural way of being.
Punishment may stop a behavior, or it may not, but it definitely won’t teach a child to replace inappropriate behavior with more productive behavior. Instead of simply punishing your children’s behavior, you can use the very situations that are problematic to teach the art of self-reflection, which will open up the path to positive ways of handling situations through problem-solving. For example, if your child is acting out and you are aware that they are tired, instead of focusing on their acting out, go directly to their emotional experience and say, “You must be so tired right now.” Or if they are sad about something, ask, “Are you acting like this because you are sad?” The doorway to emotional processing then swings open. After you have identified their emotional state and entered into it with them, explain, “No matter how you feel, you simply can’t act out in this way. Let’s find another way to communicate how you feel.” You can then teach your children to communicate their feelings in a direct manner instead of indirectly by acting out.
If children are unable to find a means to express themselves in a direct manner, their mind and body find other means of expression. Split off from their internal world, they are driven to seek what feels like their “missing pieces” elsewhere. This tends to take the form of self-destructive behavior or behavior that harms others. When children become excessively clingy, defiant, begin to steal, cut themselves, stop bathing, or fail at school, these are all signs that something is amiss with their emotions. Often a child’s emotional state manifests in symptoms associated with the body, such as migraines, stomachache, or panic attacks. This happens when children have become so split off from their real feelings that they have overloaded their bodies with unexpressed emotion. They may have become so overwhelmed in the role of pleasers or overachievers— or, in contrast, as rebels and “bad children”—that they finally collapse, with their body bearing the brunt of the collapse.
As parents, we tend to react anxiously when faced with this secondary means of attention-seeking. For example, if our child begins to fail in school, we become angry and controlling. If our child is experiencing an inordinate number of physical problems, we take them to see specialist after specialist. With physical symptoms, the situation is particularly tricky because there’s always the possibility that such symptoms have a physical cause. The difficulty is that we may inadvertently reinforce our children’s belief that something is wrong with their body, instead of tapping into the underlying emotional issue. This is why it’s so important for us to carve out space for our children to express who they are on an emotional basis. Once you understand that your children engage in negative or positive behavior due to an underlying emotional state, you can teach them to express their emotions in a direct manner. A direct way to express their emotions would mean they are able to articulate when they are angry instead of engaging in angry behavior that’s hurtful or destructive. Similarly, they can note that they are sad rather than resorting to self-destructive behavior. As you teach your children to access their emotional world on a continual basis, they don’t feel the need to act out their emotions in attention-seeking ways. Because they feel heard, they have no reason to draw attention to themselves. Feeling accepted and validated, they experience no compulsion to drown their painful emotions in negative behavior.
When your children hear you articulate your emotions in a direct, matter-of-fact manner, they emulate this. To express what you are feeling, you don’t have to yell and scream. Instead, when an issue arises between your children and yourself, you can say, “We both have feelings about this. Tell me yours, then I will share mine.” It’s crucial your children know that their feelings are as important as yours. Whenever you invite your children to tell you what’s bothering them, if the matter concerns something you have done, you might say to them, “Why don’t you tell me where you believe I have gone wrong and how I can correct it. I’m ready to listen to everything that’s causing you pain right now. You are free to express yourself—there will be no judgment.” In such a situation, it’s essential you are ready to admit your errant ways. You can tell your children, “I know how it feels when I sense I’m not respected. I’m sorry I have made you feel this way. Let’s find a way whereby each of us can experience respect from the other.”
If your child steals, you ask yourself questions such as: What is it about my presence that causes my child to feel the need to steal? What internal lack is my child experiencing that they are seeking to meet by stealing? This is an opportunity to identify the emotional roots of the behavior since such behavior doesn’t occur in a void but always involves an underlying emotional reason. Your responsibility is to uncover this. Consider yourself an usher, leading your children toward living in reality in an acceptable manner, as you simultaneously move away from thinking of yourself as a disciplinarian. Consistency is crucial. You cannot shape one behavior and not the next, or shape a behavior one day and ignore it the next. When you scream at your children’s behavior one day, then ignore it another day, your children learn to manipulate you.