Child Behavior and the Point Parents Are Missing

I once spent $250 to go to a six-week parenting class. It was a very organized and well-run course on how to handle behavior in kids. The instructors marvelously acted out scenarios and explained mechanisms behind the interventions. I also have provided therapeutic services to children in residential care as well as individual therapy to seemingly misbehaving children. I am also a nationally certified instructor in Non-Violent Crisis Intervention and was previously certified in Collaborative Problem Solving. There are also tons of parenting books out there that package interventions very nicely; however, what people do is make the mistake of thinking that finding the right intervention is the actual answer.

Mainly frustrated parents are looking for an intervention that will help their child fall in line. Out of all of the above-stated things we can do, which are all great by the way, the message that seems to get missed by the parents is that their self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence are more important than any intervention they may apply. In other words, their relational skills are going to determine the outcome, and the child’s behavior is simply a reflection of their parental relational skills. In my experience with difficult children, the interventions are best applied to the parent on an interpersonal level first before anything can be done for the child, or at least simultaneously.

Kristina @ Toddler Approved on Pintrest

No Bad Kids

We have heard it said that there are “No bad Kids, only bad parents.” This is true. Now, of course, some children are more challenging than others, but even that level of challenge is subjective to the parent’s perspective. For instance, you might find my children to be easy while I find them to be a challenge. The kids are the same; the only difference is the perspective and skills of the parent, and this is where our focus has to land.

It frustrates me beyond end to see parents misapplying interventions, even with good intentions. Children do not respond to interventions; they respond to safety. If they are resistant and do not want to be around you, then they do not feel safe. You may struggle with the word safe because your children are likely not under physical threat, but safety used this way is related to how the child is experiencing the environment you are providing. Again, jumping to intervention without fully understand how the child is experiencing you is a waste of time. The framework makes the child the problem, and this is NOT THE CASE. They are not people to simply find ways to manipulate into compliance for our own sense of control. The problem you are having is not rational or logical; rather, it is relational and emotional. Trying to apply a logical intervention to a relational problem will leave you frustrated. With that said, I want to make two points that are crucial to parenting success and are really the secret ingredient to any effort you are making.

1st: Interventions are only as effective as the relationship they are being used in. If your kids don’t trust you or don’t feel understood, they won’t feel safe. I have a parent who continually says, I did what you told me, but it didn’t work. She is missing the whole point because interventions by themselves do not work. The portrayal of the message is more critical. But even then, it won’t be as simple as 2 + 2 always equals four.

Your message also needs to be consistent to be believable and trustworthy. Again, the child is responding to you, the person, not the intervention. If they see you as a threat to their control and autonomy, they will defend themselves and miss your entire point. Change how they see you, and you will change how they respond to you. Fail to so as the responsible party, and you are only sabotaging them and your attempts for agreement.

2nd: If you aren’t regulated and calm, you will only make it impossible for them to be calm and understand you. Thus why number one is the real problem. Meaning gets lost in our frustration, agitation, and distress. The child responds to that felt sense and misses the words you are saying. Their brains are not capable of self-regulating to use their thinking brain. They need you to regulate so they can associate what you are speaking with a felt-sense of safety.

A parent-child relationship is not a “What have you done for me lately,” thing. It is made up of the entire history of relational patterns. So you will have to fail consistently for a period before you change the pattern, and your kids adapt to the new relationship. If you lose your head after a period of trying, you will just reaffirm what they expected and ruin every effort you are making.

We Have the Power and That is Scary

Parenting is set up already in a significant power differential. Your kids are responding to you, not the other way around. This is neurobiologically true in the deep brain levels; you can not change the way it is set up. Do not get caught up in interpreting their misbehavior as a lack of response to the intervention. Their “Non-compliance” is actually caused by their primary deep brain levels of safety responding to you. They are just not responding the way you would logically like.

Children are responsive based on their emotional state. If they are feeling safe and regulated, not threatened, there’s no environmental chaos, and their physiological needs are being met, such as sleep and food, they are then able to access their higher functioning brain, think more abstractly and openly, and be responsive to interventions. At that point, though, what they will be responding to is the responsibility they feel towards the relationship, not the intervention itself.

If you are unregulated and feel yourself getting agitated as the adult, and you come into contact with the child, you will literally begin to dysregulate them. They’ll lose their capacity to be thoughtful and calm, and their emotional state will start to reflect your dysregulation. Without safety, which you are responsible for, they are not going to be very compliant. So as a parent you may have to give up the immediate battle with the child and go win the battle that is being caused inside of you first. This is ok because we are concerned with the long run and do not want to give that up just to get immediate compliance on non-emergency issues.


One problem is that many parents are trying the right approach but its coming a little late to the game. Whatever you do is going to seem to work from age zero to three or four, but what about when they get a mind of their own? The behavioral response patterns have already had a few years of getting rooted. This needs to be kept in mind when trying to change your approach. Parents may see their new style getting rejected by the child evidenced by their attitude, emotional reaction, or continued resistance. The child, once again, is responding to the relationship in this manner, and it is becoming more of a two-way street. We parents need up the ante on our humbleness as well as understanding and empathy. The kid is telling you they do not trust you. It is not the intervention’s fault. So how do you build trust? Especially when the child is moving more towards independence. The answer is you remain consistent in your new approach that involves not losing your mind. You accept that you can not control everyone and you deal with what it is that is already inside of you that feels out of control. Hint, it is not caused by your kids.

Kids are naturally adapting and most adaptable during this childhood period. They are in the least fixed state they will ever be in, so if your kid isn’t getting it, then look at yourself and quit blaming them. They are telling you something about yourself and your relational patterns. They are offering you insight into things about you that need to change. They are going to challenge you to the point where you do revert back to yelling or control or whatever your old way was. Not to mention, passive or permissive parents who are trying to get some control will struggle as well. The child is trying to prove their own security system right and respond in ways to get predictable reactions from us even if they are not favorable ones, and this is what everyone does anyway. That’s why it can be exhausting because we are trying to change lower brain areas that do not change with information; they only respond to repetition. Remember that familiarity equals survival to the brain’s threat system. If your kids are frustrating you, maybe you need to prove them wrong in a good way.

Here Are Some Things To Not Do

  1. Taking a child’s behavior personal is destructive and Causes Power Struggles.
  2. Getting frustrated is ok, but acting it out is not. When you are out of control, your kids feel that, and you lose trust and credibility. Even though in your eyes, they are the ones pushing you to that level. Too much of this early on will make change harder for you when you do start to make an effort, but no less necessary.
  3. Kids need consistency first. That means quit focusing on the right rules, and expectations like that will solve it. Whatever you start with, just be consistent and reasonable with them. They will not adjust at first, but over time they will. Once you have consistent expectations, you can arrange logical consequences around those expectations. Without consistency, your consequences become arbitrary and unfair.
  4. The consequences can never be that you are mad or upset with them. They need to be neutral and matter of fact. A fair parent has a couple of simple expectations and otherwise gives freedom for the child to explore the world. If you are always trying to impose a rule or expectation randomly, they will rebel. It is your inconsistency that is creating the problem, not them.
  5. You can not withhold your unconditional positive regard and love for the child. That needs to remain unconditional. Your job as a parent remains to love no matter what. If you pull back and hold them accountable by not being present, holding a grudge, blaming them for how you feel, or not providing for their needs, then you are blowing up the whole thing and proving yourself to be a bigger child then they are.

Your Personal Growth is Key: How are You Getting After It?

You may say, “I do not need my kids to like me; I just need them to listen.” It may be true that they do not need to like you, but if your kids do not like you, why wouldn’t you question that? Do you like not being liked in general? Your kids should love you and respect you. If they do not do either, it’s still a reflection on you that you need to explore. Of course, you can tell me I’m full of crap and that kids just need to listen and do what they are told. That’s fine, you can be that kind of parent, and it may work in the short term to produce a compliant kid. In the long run, you lose the relationship, and as adults, they will choose not to relate to you. That is a more significant problem for you and them than any sort of short term non-compliance.

If you are not willing to check yourself and ensure that you are individually working on increasing your self-awareness, empathy, self-control, and emotional intelligence, then forget it; Nothing is going to work out the way it is supposed to anyways. In the long run, if it does work out, it won’t be because you did a great job; it will be because your kids took responsibility for themselves and became the “Bigger Person.” That’s not up for debate. It’s just the way it is.

This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born and is republished here with permission from the author.


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