By Dr Marianne Trent of Good Thinking Psychological Services
These are testing times for all of us. It's likely that you never wanted to be a teacher, especially not for your own children, maybe you didn’t even particularly like school yourself? Yet now you find yourself at home round the clock being your child’s home educator! It’s a daunting prospect especially for those of us who have kind of got used to only spending quality time with our children at the weekends. Now it feels like the spotlight is upon us and our biggest fear is that we won’t measure up! There’s also the added pressure of trying to plan meals with limited cupboard re-stocking options and of course the constant threat that at any moment you or a member of your family could say “Urrrmm……I don’t feel very well……!” It’s not a surprise that people have been contacting me to ask for advice on how to manage situations where they are finding their child’s behaviour to be a challenge. For example:
“My children are home now because the schools are closed and their behaviour is just awful! Screaming and fighting all of the time and so hard to manage. Yesterday my 7 year old son couldn’t find his Lego piece and just started shouting, screaming and crying. I’m finding it really hard to manage! I’m constantly sending them upstairs to their rooms because I don’t want them near me! How can I get my children to be better behaved?” Charlotte*, Mother of 2.
I get it; it’s like a pressure cooker in homes across the world at the moment. All of us are used to having more structure and suddenly it's lacking. So? How to respond? Firstly, in situations like this it’s important to try to tap into the feelings behind the behaviour. In people of all ages, when we see behaviour which looks ‘angry,’ it’s important to look at what was going on before the behaviour. Anger is what we call a ‘secondary emotion,’ something else always comes first. In the example here, it is likely that Charlotte’s son was feeling frustrated and it would be a good idea to say to him “I can see just how frustrated that has made you.” I always say to my clients “There’s not a lot which breathing doesn’t fix, let’s take some breaths!” I say it because it’s true and it works. It’s important that we equip ourselves and our children with the skills to be able to calm themselves down. Breathing properly allows us to calm down our physiology and to give our threat systems the message that it’s ok and that there is no threat. During times of stress with our loved ones it can be helpful for us to remember to take a breath and soothe our own physiology before responding. Sometimes, let’s be honest, often when behaviour is challenging, we can find it tempting to send someone away from us. We believe that we are doing this to help the other person, usually the child to regulate our own feelings. However, often it’s us as the grown up who also needs to manage our own feelings too! What if we resisted that temptation and regulated our emotions together? What if when we most felt like sending our child away from us that we drew them closer? It can be a really powerful parenting tool to scoot down on the floor, scoop up your child, no matter how old they are, cradle them in your arms and hold them whilst doing some breathing and making soothing sounds. I know that crying can often be interpreted as manipulative or annoying but honestly, crying and noise making is a really good sign, especially when working with adults therapeutically. Someone who is able to cry is evidencing that they are able to tap into their primitive mammalian help seeking behaviours. Promise me, from someone whose job it is to help humans regulate and function better, crying is a great thing! A Crying human is like a bird squawking in distress when they spot a predator is saying “Help me!” Therefore, when faced with a crying human of any age the way to make a lasting difference is to help someone to manage and regulate their emotions. You might find that sometimes your child seems to act much younger than their years, especially within moments of distress or pressure. That’s because when humans experience difficult times we can revert to previous developmental stages. It’s one of the reasons why when we are sick, we want our Mum! It’s why, during these incredibly difficult times of COVID-19 that we can find ourselves being entirely stuck for words and just wanting to cry and scream. We can usually manage – but faced with stressful and scary times we want to reach for the real grown-ups to keep us safe and so we revert to earlier coping styles – those which have worked well to keep us safe so far. So, take a breath and try to think of challenging behaviour as being a call from that person for you to help regulate their world and their feelings. If this has resonated with you and you decide to give it a try I would love to know how you get on!