Behaviour management is a big part of being a parent. From their earliest moments, children follow an impulsive, undifferentiated curiosity. It falls to the people in their lives to let them know when they’ve crossed a line. Different people will have different ideas about where to draw the lines, but ultimately their function is to ensure a social world in which we can all live together without fears for our safety or dignity.
To be sure there is such a thing as too many lines and such a thing as too few. It’s one of the dances of parenthood to simultaneously encourage our children to explore while keeping them safe and social.
Sometimes, no matter our best efforts, things go awry. We find ourselves describing particular patterns of behaviour in our children as ‘acting out’; behaviours that don’t fit any models of predictably. In other words, behaviour that is chaotic, uncontrollable and unpredictable, sometimes even dangerous.
Then we look to experts for strategies to manage problematic behaviour. One of the first strategies we encounter is something called emotional regulation. This helps children bring more awareness to their emotions and their relative intensity in varied contexts. The theory is that greater emotional awareness leads to an improved ability to self-soothe and self-manage states of heightened arousal, which otherwise the child might "act out". For many children this strategy proves helpful. Indeed many adults also benefit from improved awareness about their emotional states.
However, there are cases in which emotional regulation appears not to address some underlying problem. And one way to understand that problem is by reference to another phrase commonly used to describe kids who "act out". That is, "attention-seeking".
Occasionally we label certain patterns of behaviour as motivated by the need for attention. It’s not a comfortable thought for two reasons: first, because it implies that the behaviour is deliberate and motivated; second because it implies that appropriate attention isn’t being given. With one hand we feel as though we are blaming the child; with the other the caregiver.
But neither the child nor the caregiver is to blame for what is in truth an opportunity for wholehearted growth; an opportunity to improve a relationship.
This way of looking at the problem comes from attachment-based family therapy. The theory there is that problematic behaviours are symptoms of insecure attachments, which maintain dysregulated nervous system states. In simple terms, without a secure attachment to a caregiver, children will always be poised to fight, flee or freeze, and will have difficulty coping with intense emotions.
So how does a parent or caregiver go about improving the quality of attachment with their children? There are lots of ways, but perhaps most significant is that none of them has to do with telling children where the lines are, or reminding them of the consequences of an overstep. Just like other relationships, meaningful, secure parent-child connections take quality time, patience, courage and acceptance.
For an inspiring piece of writing on wholehearted parenting check out Brené Brown’s The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto, available for free here.
By Daniel Silver (Counsellor, Relationships Australia Alice Springs)