Feelings are messengers of met and unmet need. Unpleasant feelings, that are wake up calls for unmet needs, result in impulsive behaviors. Here’s how we can manage the behavior by addressing the unmet need it stems from.
It happens (happened, and will happen) to all of us. We will ask for our little ones to do something and watch them do the opposite, we will ask them not to do something and watch them do the opposite. We will see their little faces sadden a second before their hands are raised, we’ll watch them cry, hit, and bite. Snatch toys, scream, throw, and the list is endless, really. At these moments, they need something from us, and that something is not redirecting, or hearing they are misbehaving, or being sent away, and denied of attachment. It is attachment that they need. They need us to help them understand which of their needs is sabotaged, what feelings it brings forth, and how to cope. They need us to teach them alternative strategies (rather than the ones we deem as “negative behaviors”) for meeting their needs. Peaceful strategies.
This can’t be taught by disregarding their feelings (common honey, nothing happened!), by shaming them (I told you a million times – why can’t you ever listen to me?) or by fear driven learning (do it one more time and I swear you’ll never see that toy again). It can only be taught through the naming of needs and feelings. But first, there are a few things you should know.
Early Brain Development – Some Biology
In the first years of our lives, our brain operates in a singular mode. If we’re happy, we’re happy. If we’re hungry, we’re hungry. I’m sure you wondered how is it that your child shifts from utmost happiness to a hysterical cry in less than a millisecond, well, this is why. If she’s happily building Lego towers in her room, when two incompatible blocks refuse to succumb to her orders, frustration will kick happiness aside, erasing all traces of it, as if fun has never visited her room and the world is dark and hopeless. She will cry until she will reach a state of futility through a process of adaptation, through understanding and internalizes that these two blocks will never fit into each other. Only then would she be able to put that frustration aside and move on to the next emotion.
Children under the age of five, don’t yet have the ability to integrate the logical with the emotional parts of their brains; they do understand what we are saying and what is happening, but the urge to do whatever it is that they are asked not to do will usually overcome our request. They simply can’t yet fight that urge. And here’s a fun fact – the logical and emotional parts of the human brain are only fully integrated, allowing us control over our urges, around twenty years of age. Yup, that’s right.
Resisting Control is Instinctive
Control and dominance are ineffective strategies to child discipline because humans resist it by their very nature. We are designed to push all coercion away. This is instinctual behavior and the sooner we understand, the easier life will become. When our little ones are doing something we disagree with, and we ask them to stop, or pop out a strong “no!” they will instinctively want to do that even more. This is natural and normal behavior – exactly how it should be.
So how Can We Correct Children’s Behavior?
We can’t correct or fix anything, because it isn’t wrong or broken. What we can do, is guide our little ones through their needs and feelings, and help them find peaceful strategies to dealing with these. Here’s how:
Acknowledge Your Child’s Abilities
When your 3-year-old snatches his friend’s toy, acknowledge the fact that he knows snatching toys is not right, but that knowledge is inaccessible to him at that moment. Even if he loves his friend very much, love is set aside by the need to have that specific toy at that specific point in time. Your acknowledgment will not change the situation, but it will help you handle it with compassion, keeping your attachment in place.
Address the Emotion, not the Behavior
There is, essentially, no way of addressing the behavior while keeping the attachment intact. Addressing the feeling and needs, however, showing our little ones empathy and compassion, precisely at that moment of frustration as they’re breaking the rules, will teach them that frustration is a legitimate feeling, that they can express their feelings without losing our attachment, that they are accepted for who they are at any given moment. When our little ones are free from the fear of losing our attachment, they are free to process challenging feelings and address them more positively as time goes by, and their range of abilities widens.
Control the situation, not the child.
“Wow, honey, you really wanted to play with this toy right now, didn’t you? I saw how frustrated you were when you saw your friend playing with it”.
Understand and Offer an Alternative
Addressing our little ones’ needs and feelings is very likely to reduce their level of present negativity, as children need to know that they are understood, and in most cases they will not stop expressing their emotions until they feel we are on the same page with them (or until they give up, which will last much longer and will not serve as a learning experience). Being on the same page with them right from the start is key to managing these situations
“I know you really want to play with that toy, but your friend is playing with it right now. What would you like to do? Would you like to ask him if you can play with it for a bit? Or would you like to find another toy? We can also just sit here until you feel better; I love you Sunshine”.
Offering an alternative serves a few major goals: first and foremost it gives children the ability to make a new choice when their need for autonomy (independence, the freedom to choose) is unmet. Making choices, and the ability to make another choice, that is different from the previous choice is a big step towards independence and a very important practice for our little ones.
Wait for a Favorable Moment
In most cases, our natural urge is to handle the situation right there, on the spot; teach, teach, teach. But when angry, frustrated, or sad – we can’t learn. We’re concentrated on ourselves and our feelings and any external input that doesn’t have to do with our feelings will just upset us even more. This is true at any age, by the way. Think about it.
We can always come back to the situation later on, when feeling good and needs are met, and discuss what happened, giving our perspective on what should have happened that moment.
“Remember, earlier, when you snatched your friend’s toy? You were so upset that he took it that you just grabbed it out of hands? Next time remember that you have the ability to tell him that you want to play with that toy, or that you can play with it together. Or offer him something else, right? But snatching is never something you want to do. I love you baby”. And a hug.
Sounds great, right? Well, even if we will be be saying just this from the earliest age, we really shouldn’t expect to see any of this until much later on. Learning how this world works, how we work, is a lifelong process. Especially when we try to guide in a different, peaceful way that is not yet practiced by most daycares or schools.
Empathy, Compassion, Patience
Always remember that you have made the beneficial choice of peacefully parenting your little ones’. Guide them through empathy and compassion, with endless patience. Allow yourself empathy and compassion when met with others who criticize you or your choices. They haven’t manages to escape the circle of fear, guilt, and shame like you have. Give yourself a high five and remember that it is not about the now, about the child; it is about the future, about the adult.
Join my peaceful Facebook community here and share your experience; we’ll find the Nonviolent way to approach these next time 🙂