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Children Are Not Badly Behaved

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Children are not badly behaved, they are misunderstood. I firmly believe that behaviour is a child’s way of communicating their feelings and emotions. We do not question this with a baby because they are totally reliant on the adults in their lives to nurture, love, and care for them. They cry – we hold them, feed them, change them, rock them. When and why does this all change? 

As our little people grow, begin to explore and learn about the world around them, we assume they need less of that initial care. If they fall over, get hurt, and cry we immediately scoop them up into our arms and hold them, rock them, kiss it better until they are settled again. However when they have a tantrum or a meltdown we deem this as unacceptable, unwanted behaviour, and the response they receive is totally different.

Why is it different? Others tell me it is misbehaviour and should be treated as such so put them in a ‘time out’, ignore them, let them thrash it out. What is your child learning from this? Absolutely nothing. They learn that their behaviour escalates the tone and manner of your response when your reaction at this time is key and your child needs your reassurance more than ever. If their storm is met by your storm, it resembles clouds crashing together to produce lightning, however, if their storm is met by your calm, slowly the thunder will cease.

Adults need to rethink what a child is trying to convey through a tantrum or meltdown. Go back to that tiny baby that needs to be nurtured, held, and spoken to softly and do this with the child that is thrashing and screaming in front of you. This child’s thinking brain has completely shut down and they cannot hear or comprehend a word you say. That little body is totally overwhelmed with a feeling, an emotion that is too big to understand and their only way of letting you know this is by showing you physically. So scoop that child up into your arms or onto your lap, hold them, rock them, speak softly to them just like you did before until the feeling subsides. This is not being soft or ignoring the behaviour, this is you helping your child by co-regulating. How else are they going to learn if not with you by their side?

As with adults they need to know it is okay not to be okay, it is healthy to let those feelings and emotions out safely and it is our job to name those feelings, acknowledge, and validate them. It is only through this process that a child will begin to understand what those feelings are and why they might be feeling them. In time, they will be able to tell you verbally they are frustrated, sad or angry because you have been there for them, by their side during their toughest times. 

We, the adults, also need to be mindful to role model our own response to our strong emotions. It is no use teaching your child how to regulate in this way if when you are angry you storm off, slam doors, scream, and shout. Children are great imitators and are always watching you for guidance.

I will leave you with one final message, a quote that I use constantly:

‘Beneath every behaviour, there is a feeling. Behind each feeling, there is a need. When we meet that need rather than focus on the behaviour, we begin to deal with the cause, not the symptom.’

Tara Copard is a mental health advocate.

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