If only our kids came with a manual, or a how to guide so that when we come across puzzling moments that leave us scratching our heads we have some idea how to respond or what to do. So often we are left puzzled by their actions and left to feel like no one else’s child could possible act this way? Or could they?
Recently I gave a talk to a group of parents on “Engaging our Youth Today;” I only got part way through my talk when the parents revealed what they really wanted: help! They wanted to share scenario after scenario about what was happening for them at home and what to do about it. Before I could respond to their situations an interesting thing happened, everyone calmed after hearing each other’s stories. We hadn’t even problem solved on best practices to deploy, but just hearing that no one was dealing with something that was being heard of for the first time was comforting. We may all be unique individuals, but socially we are all connected as well as challenged in similar ways.
Children (and adults too, but this article is focused on the tinier humans) all want the same two things deep down: belonging and significance. And what are those? Alfred Adler, the father of Adlerian psychology said that without belonging, the feeling of being connected, and significance, the feeling of having self worth, we act out. When children “act out” they do so with mistaken goals of behaviour. And thus is born, our problem their solution.
For example, if you are trying to have an adult conversation with your friend and your 5 year old appears suddenly trying valiantly to prove to you and your friend that he can emulate a Jedi knight, if only you would just play Obi Wan mixed in with a little freeze dancing. His relentless clowning leaves you feeling in that moment, annoyed, or irritated! You then, like any other parent remind him that you’re having coffee with Kelly and this is not a good time, and he stops temporarily but then resumes soon after and likely with an entire fleet of episode IV characters! You then coax him to do this somewhere else and remind yet again that you can’t play right now, but no improvement appears. What is going on? Our problem, being interrupted, is their solution, getting just what they need, attention.
Likely your child has the mistaken belief that he counts or belongs only when he is getting attention and being noticed. Adler would describe this quadrant of the mistaken goals of behaviour as “undue attention.” What would work better in terms of parenting? From an effective prevention stand point, aka, what one could have done prior to the encounter, is set aside some special time together before the coffee date happened. But what about in the moment when you wish you had special Jedi knight powers? Take a deep breath and think what your child might need for a moment. For example, thinking from your child’s standpoint “notice me, involve me,” and try saying something simple like, “I care about you and will spend time with you later.” This may sound too simplistic for some but the emphasis is on the connection, the eye contact and the sound of your voice.
Another option considering how children need to feel useful and feel like they have worth (remember significance), is to redirect your child by assigning a task so they gain useful attention. For example, you could suggest draw a picture, or even a household chore that is developmentally age appropriate, such as fold napkins, set up snacks for lunch, organize lego toys etc. Children (and adults too) thrive on feeling useful.
Next week, we will look at the rest of the mistaken goals of behaviour and problem solve useful ways to respond that maintain the dignity of yourself and your child.
For now, may the force be with you!
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA