How we respond to our child's behavior significantly affects their development and attachment. While temperament plays an essential role, their experiences in the world with their caregivers are especially meaningful. Depending on how we respond to our children's experiences, their brains will grow in various ways. When your child exhibits challenging behavior, parents' repeated responses can have a long-term impact on their overall sense of security, trust, resilience, and internal regulation throughout the lifespan. In reality, however, it is anything but a picture-perfect relationship.
When parents hear this message, they can be reassured that being "good enough" is more than enough, and it's normal to feel pressured to perform faultlessly in response to every demanding behavior at home. Inevitably, ruptures in relationships can be repaired; for a child, this can be even more consequential to see that their caregivers can withstand and weather intense emotional storms. Having the capacity to make space for big, messy emotions allows the child to foster a positive sense of self. In everyday interactions, caregivers and children are far less likely to be in sync than to experience frequent, imperceptible mismatches. From not matching a child's facial expression to a significant meltdown, there is no such thing as perfect harmony. It turns out that 70% of the time, we have mismatches in our interactions, meaning that only 30% of them are in sync (Tronick, 2020). Imperfection is inescapable and a welcome opportunity to move from disconnection to connection.
Here are some factors to consider when moving from rupture to repair with your child:
The Power of What Can't Be Said
When your child is amid an emotional tsunami, it's normal for parents' immediate reflex to be to respond verbally with logic or rationality to curb the behavior. Before giving advice or reasoning, it's vital to respond to their emotional needs using affective communication by connecting with their right brain before problem-solving with the left brain. When a child is upset, their rational brain is usurped by big emotions, leaving them incapable of being soothed with just words. There is proto-conversation happening implicitly expressed in nonverbal communications such as facial expressions, tone of voice, pitch, rhythm, body movements, and prosody (Schore, 2012). When a child has an emotional need, they seek out their parent, who expresses their emotions back to them intuitively with their nonverbal displays of affection, playfulness, or soothing presence. The parent has an opportunity to create connections and repair ruptures by paying attention to these cues. For instance, if your child is angry about a situation, the parent can connect first by getting on their eye level with a soft tone of voice and non-threatening posture to address their emotional needs. Once the child is regulated, the parent can proceed to use logic, setting limits, or collaboration to address the behavior in future scenarios. As Dan Siegel puts it, "say yes to the feelings, even as you say no to the behavior" (Siegel, 2014).
Telling the Story Together
Telling the story of what happened following a rupture can be a compelling intervention. By making the child's internal world explicit, we help them better understand how their brain functions and encourage reflection to make sense of their difficult thoughts and feelings. Children who do not reflect on their experiences may later become confused or embark on an endless search for why they felt the way they did. Once your child is calm, you can begin by acknowledging their pain by simply naming the emotion they were feeling, such as sadness or anger. Don't be afraid to discuss or explore even the darker experiences your child has during this time. Then, teaching children about how sometimes when we get sad or mad and don't know what to do, a volcano erupts in us, and we feel out of control, leading us to act differently or say things. Lastly, reassure them that we can figure this out together and provide hope and a tool to help them manage their emotions in the future. A practical way to implement storytelling is to have the child tell their story creatively using art or music or simply write it out later to share with their parents.
It takes courage to be curious about what is happening behind the behavior in your child's mind and to pay attention to what's occurring in your own mind during challenging situations. It's a natural response for many of us to focus on outward behavior, especially because many treatments focus only on changing behavior using modification strategies. When curious, we focus on the underlying mental states, not just the behavior itself. Parents can use their imagination to hypothesize what their child is thinking, feeling, and desiring to understand better what to do in response. You can foster a trusting relationship with your child if you try to sense what they may be experiencing psychologically. Children feel more understood when a parent can hold their child's mind in their mind (Fonagy, 2019). When responding to ruptures, parents should also observe their thoughts, feelings, and sensations to know when to take a break or how to approach the situation calmly. While you're feeling overwhelmed during your child's outburst, take a pause to ask yourself why your child is acting out, what are they communicating, and how can I reflect what they may be experiencing beneath the behavior. To reflect on what may be influencing your response as a parent in these high-stress situations, examine your own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images like a curious scientist. Suppose your child is very angry at you, screaming hurtful things, and refusing to follow your bedtime instructions. Consider attending to what your child may be thinking and feeling instead of reacting immediately and adding to the chaos. It might simply be that they are hungry, tired, or lack sleep, or that they felt excluded and lonely earlier in the day. You continue wondering quietly for a few minutes what may be behind the behavior and respond by holding their mind in your mind.
Parenting is hard work, and changing your mindset to focus on your child’s underlying thoughts and feelings is not an intuitive process for many parents or caregivers. It can often be beneficial to enlist the support of a therapist who specializes in child behavior to assist you in being more objective during difficult parent-child interactions. Konick and Associates has therapists that specialize in working with children and families who are experiencing challenging behaviors in the home, school or community settings. If you could use a supportive guide to assist you in rebuilding a positive connection with your child, contact our office to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced clinicians.
Bateman, A. W., & Fonagy, P. (2019). Handbook of mentalizing in mental health practice.
Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Siegel DJ, Payne Bryson T.. No Drama Discipline: The Whole Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2014.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: Twelve revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Random House.
Schore, A. N. (2012). The science and art of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Norton.
Tronick, E, & Gold, C. M. (2020). The Power of Discord: Why the ups and downs of relationships are the secret to building intimacy, resilience, and trust. Scribe Publications Pty Limited.