It’s often said that children’s negative behaviors occur due to either the child is hoping to get something he or she wants, or the child is hoping to avoid something he or she doesn’t want.
Denise Durkin, MA, is an early childhood mental health consultant and self-regulation specialist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, at Our Holistic Kids.
Because I believe it’s so important to increase our collective psychological literacy, or “PsychQ,” as I call it — a measurable intelligence — it seems helpful to examine more closely the underlying psychological dynamics of child development in instances of any number of behavioral challenges.
Understanding human behavior at its deepest core levels is vital for increasing our own insights into dynamics within ourselves and our families. The knowledge deepens our own levels of patience and feelings of compassion, and it broadens our collective skills sets for essentially increasing harmony in our family, school, and community cultures. The insights that psychological literacy have created and continue to help create in our current culture can extend way beyond childhood for our children as they internalize the same ways of thinking and doing that help root them in peace and empowerment.
Being in Balance
That said, it is often overlooked that when a child becomes upset, it is very often — if not always — because not only is he not doing things his way, but also because at this deepest core level, he is not feeling the homeostasis, or balance within himself, that he needs to in order to feel his best: his most safe self. This is no small thing.
It is important to state that emotional safety is the overarching developmental goal of childhood. I don’t think we need empirical research to prove this assertion. Feeling safe includes being wholly accepted for who we are and what we feel, like, and do. It is a precursor to self-worth, self-respect, and personal pride that makes up a child’s idea of who he or she is. This counters shame development, which highly factors into capacities for self-regulation.
What Causes a Child’s Lack of Emotional Safety?
There are many reasons for a child’s lack of internal balance — this lack of emotional safety — on the part of a child who withdraws or acts out.
I’ll begin with a story. It is an example of why a child’s external environment of relationships — his or her parents, teachers, extended family members, and other caregivers — needs to be balanced in order to help him or her feel safe, and if it is not, how to use a few specific steps to begin to increase that external “relationship” balance, which so greatly factors into our relationship with a child and his or her compliance to our requests.
In this, as in all of what I write, the words that I use are not used in judgment, but to make specific the best examples for creating healthy versus unhealthy relationships. We all do the best we can with the skills and awareness we have at any given time.
I’m recalling a situation for which I was asked to consult on a common problem for many families and classrooms, in which 2 caregivers with very different relating styles are attempting to “handle” a 3-year old boy whose behaviors are “off the hook.” Noncompliance, aggression, and attention-seeking behaviors are the norm on any given day, at any given time.
First Look: Attachment
The first, most apparent problem was that the 2 caregivers were relating to him in very different ways. If I could bring insight into this imbalance to both adults, and if they both began using the same methods of relating to the child, we’d likely have more success at helping him to feel more safe and secure in context of this “continuity of care,” meaning he’d likely feel safer because there would be more consistency in how he was being treated.
Working from the perspective, then, of emotional safety being the overarching developmental goal of childhood allows us to recognize that the safer this boy feels as himself — in his body, within his environment — the less likely he would be to act out, since his acting-out is a call for an intervention to help him get what he needs: an internal sense of balance and security the adults could provide by themselves being balanced and consistent in how they relate to him. Step one.
One caregiver has an inconsistent approach and inconsistent emotions she displays to the boy. She seems uncertain of what to do much of the time. During a particular observation, when the boy is non-compliant, she attempts to redirect him from across the room: “Put the books back on the shelves, OK?” He does not listen and, in fact, begins throwing books her way. The caregiver is exhausted from dealing with him, so she ignores him and begins reading a story to another child on the floor. “He doesn’t listen anyway, so what’s the use,” she tells me. Next, the boy is on the couch behind her dropping heavier and heavier items onto her head. Finally, she yells at him out of frustration and he acts up more than before: throwing more items across the room, running, and knocking objects around.
Enter the second caregiver. She is confident, consistent, firm, and warm with the children. She addresses any issues by approaching the child personally and kneeling to their level, speaking eye-to-eye with them, being sure to use non-shaming tones and words. She uses inquiry and humor, sets limits, and uses role modeling to teach the skills the child has not yet developed. Her own consistent, balanced, respectful state of being and relating — which translates into her perception, approach, and management of him — is what Adam needs to feel safe: He trusts that she will continue to be balanced and safe for him. So it is easier, far easier, for him to have the willingness to comply with her directives when he has this trusting relationship that makes him feel secure: meaning emotionally safe.
The boy’s non-compliance, aggression, and attention-seeking behaviors are lessened at the moment due to this method of engaging which this second caregiver provides. But because this method is not used by the first caregiver also, the boy continues to act out in this environment overall. The adults’ methods of perception, approach, and management of children are not in sync at all, and the boy’s behaviors are — to a significant degree in this environment — the outcomes of that inconsistency.
What went on for this 3-year-old is true for many children: His negative behaviors are signaling that he is not feeling the balance in his internal world — within himself — in large part because his first caregiver does not have the skills set to be the external source of balance in how she relates to him. Being a balanced caregiver is a piece to helping him acquire this internal balance. This aspect of the child’s relationships falls under the domain of “Attachments/Relationships,” among the multiple domains of health and well-being requiring balance — each prerequisites to self-regulation.
Engagement vs Redirection
So how to understand a more systematic approach to providing the balanced attachment that acting-out or withdrawn children are seeking? Let’s now look at the caregivers’ approaches to discipline: engagement versus redirection.
We can define redirection as a simple, short statement of what you want a child to do differently. You’re basically saying, “Put the books on the shelves; it’s time to (fill in the blank).”
Engagement requires more time and effort, and is a mechanism for developing a positive emotional attachment with a child based upon mutual warmth, respect, and trust. It occurs over time and is the foundation for a healthy relationship. Once this relationship is developed, redirection can be used more successfully. However, inherent in this dynamic of compliance is our need to be sensitive to the different types of children’s needs, including their intelligence and transition needs.
How to Engage
If you recognize your own need to be a more balanced caregiver, perhaps using the following example about the 3-year-old boy in the story will help you develop a personalized system for your perception, approach, and management of his behavior:
First, approach him personally and engage. We walk over to where the child is and get down to his level, calmly and respectfully addressing what he is doing, feeling, his desires, and/or what we think his body needs, such as to express energy.
Second, realize your 2 goals. Our first goal is the “activity goal” — to get the boy to pick up the books from the floor and put them back on the shelves, so setting limits. Our second goal is the “relationship goal” — to develop a better relationship with him, meaning strengthening our attachment to him.
This means we avoid saying anything that will put him on the defensive and not want to talk with us, like “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you listen like the others?” However, sometimes we unwittingly communicate the same with anger and frustration, and this can set a child off. So, it’s worth repeating that it pays to be in check of how we present ourselves.
To make or improve that emotional connection, we try engaging him in a pleasant conversation about his activity, and also address how he seems to be feeling. And then set limits.
Primarily, we show him that we are interested in him and that he matters by being intentional in our approach. When I do this, I kneel down, look in the child’s eyes, and with patience and warmth, I’ll say something like, “Hey (child’s name), I see you’ve been looking at some books. Which are the ones you like best?”
The goal of using these intentional specific steps is to help the child establish a positive schema — or concept — for who he believes himself to be. The emotions of warmth related to feeling respected, interesting to someone, and of being liked help to develop his emotional schema for his self-concept. In other words, the emotions he is feeling translate to unconscious messages of “I am of interest to this person/respected by her/worthy of being listened to. She enjoys/likes me, so I must be of value; therefore, I must be good for her to relate to me this way.”
Think about it. What do you feel and perhaps unconsciously process in a similar adult situation? Can you imagine it for a very small child? How they come to develop self-pride or shame? It’s important to understand the idea of how an emotional schema for “I am liked, I am wanted, I am good,” can be developed and nurtured. I cannot overstate this importance.
There are many things going on here, in this story, within the 3-year-old’s awareness, however conscious or unconscious — and they are affecting the way he views himself by virtue of how we are viewing him. Therefore, they are affecting the way he feels about himself, and us. We are showing him respect by approaching him, getting on his level, and making kind eye contact.
We are not accusing him, rather we are inquiring as to what he is doing and what he likes. This makes him feel good, and puts him at ease, and this is the right track.
Third, identify things about him. We say, “Out of all these books, which are your favorite? Oh, one about boats, one about trains, and one about flying in a plane! You really like things that move, don’t you?” By asking him to show us his favorite books, we continue to create a sense in him that what he likes matters to us and this really helps him begin to feel a positive emotional connection to us.
In his mind, because what he likes matters to us, he must matter to us — this message is no small thing. In pointing out that he likes things that move, we are further helping him to see himself through the lens of what he likes, and this helps to shape the idea — or cognitive schema — he has for who he is. He is now considering himself as someone who likes things that move.
This may not seem like such a big deal to us, but to a 3-year-old, it’s the very building up of his self-concept! He’s internalizing a more cognitive validation of who he is, and this — along with the building up of his emotional schema — helps him gain a clearer picture of himself as a person in the world that makes him feel good.
Fourth, go for the activity goal. By investing time into inquiring about him as a person, we began to make our relationship goal. If that feels like a solid foundation — and it is likely to, especially over time — then we go for the activity goal: “Let’s put these books over here and bring them to circle time, so we can show our friends what you like. But first, let’s get the rest of these books on the shelf.”
We don’t ask him; we tell him. If he begins to melt down, we provide more choices to help him gain a sense of control: “Do you want to put the books back first, or take your books to the circle area first?” “Do you want to get the other kids together for circle when we’re finished, or should I do it?” Here we are skillfully attempting to expand that positive connection, which ideally will both lead us to the next activity, and gain his compliance with returning the books to the shelves in the meantime.
So that is the goal, process, and ideal result of engaging a child. These are the foundational factors to “being the balance” for a child.
Redirection Without Engagement and Fear-Based Tactics Miss the Mark
Redirecting a child, say, from across the room when we do not have a warm, trusting, and — in his eyes — safe relationship with him is less likely to produce compliance, although some children comply out of fear. Threatening, manipulating, shaming, or otherwise instilling fear to get a child to do what is wanted may work in some cases, but we know it is not the foundation for a truly safe, warm, and loving relationship. Do we want our kids to use those kinds of tactics on themselves or with others? Of course not, because this is where bullying can start and other maladaptive ways of relating.
Remember that our goal is to help the child develop “right relationship” with himself. This is the prerequisite for developing healthy relationships with others. As we use warmth, humor, and inquiry as a process of engagement, we teach the child to be warm, easygoing, and engaging with himself and his peers.
Also Helpful: Realistic Limits, Consistency, and Addressing Own Emotional Drama
In addition to using engagement to develop healthy emotional bonds with our child, we need to be mindful of setting realistic limits based on realistic expectations of his or her age and developmental stage. We should not expect, for example, 2- and 3-year-olds to sit for however many minutes of circle time, or even older children if they are bored. Recognizing each child’s unique intelligence, needs, and skills sets is key in every situation.
The other piece is being consistent with how we handle the part when they don’t comply — so our “follow-through.” We want to be present for the child and really listen to him, really see him, and we want to keep our own emotional dramas out of the equation and be consistent in our manner so the child learns to trust us. This requires our own ongoing commitment to being vulnerable to objective, kind, non-judgmental self-insight.