How to catch yourself when you think your child's behavior is about you, and what to do instead.
By Amelia Bowler, Board Certified Behavior Consultant
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“Did you wash your hands?”
“Is this chocolate or poop?”
When you’re a parent, some questions are always worth asking. If I’m feeling frustrated, I can ask myself how to get things back on track. If I’m feeling worn out, I can ask myself whether this is a battle worth fighting.
However, there’s one question that always gets me in trouble. It’s a sure-fire, one-way ticket to self-doubt and guilt. I’ve learned never to ask the following question:
“What does my child’s behavior say about me?”
When I ask this question, the replies come from the shadowy corners of my brain:
A stern voice warns me: “You’d better teach them some respect. They think they can walk all over you.”
A shaky whisper reminds me: “If your children had all their needs met, they wouldn’t be acting this way. If you had been a more gentle and supportive parent, your children would be calm and cooperative.”
Another voice mutters: “Why should anyone listen to you? No one thinks you’re important. Your needs don’t matter, and no one wants to hear you complain.”
In other words, I’m taking my child’s behavior personally. I’m getting offended, and I’m assuming that this moment is somehow about me.
This is an easy mistake to make. Messy behavior moments often look like deliberate disobedience, willfulness, lack of respect, or spitefulness. When they happen on a regular basis, there’s even a psychiatric label for it: Oppositional Defiant Disorder. The words “oppositional” and “defiant” imply that a child’s disruptive behavior is a reaction to adult authority. After all, how can a child be oppositional and defiant if there is no one to oppose or defy? In other words, it’s all about your child’s attitude toward you.
Fortunately, you have nothing to prove. You don’t need to question yourself.
Here’s what to do instead of getting offended by your kid's behavior
If you are feeling insecure or lost, it’s easy to find evidence to confirm your fears. Once you go looking for one mistake, you’ll quickly find another. Instead, make this your top priority: find a sense of safety within yourself. This is one of the key skills I teach in my book, The Parents' Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder: Your Question Answered
Even your emotions are going haywire and your intellectual abilities seem to be hijacked, there are other ways to find calm and comfort. You might not be able to “think” your way out, but fortunately there are other parts of you that can help. For example, if you focus your attention on your body and just notice what your senses are telling you, you can often get out of that fight-flight-freeze state more easily. To support a physical feeling of safety, seek out a sensation that comforts you. This might be a weighted blanket, a breathing exercise, or a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Social support, such as an encouraging text message or a long hug, can help restore that sense of safety too . A moment of compassionate mindfulness can help you switch your focus from asking “What’s wrong with me?” and bringing your focus back to “How can I help?”
If you’re really stuck, take a moment. Stop and place a hand on your heart. Take a breath. Now, picture a person who cares deeply about you. Imagine what they would say to you. Stay with that image, until you remember: you are okay. You are enough.
Once you feel safe, you can approach your children in a way that makes them feel safe too. You can see what might be sparking those big emotions, or what might help them cool down. Instead of interpreting your child’s behavior “defiant,” you will be able to see other possibilities, such as distress, anxiety, confusion or even curiosity.
About the Author:
Amelia Bowler is a behavior consultant, a board-certified behavior analyst, and the owner of Creative Connected Parenting. She is the author of “The Parents' Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder: Your Question Answered” and she shares her writing and artwork at her website, ameliabehaviour.com. Her mission is to encourage parents and help each family member get what they need.