Challenging. Spirited. Explosive. Insistent. These are just some of the labels used to describe children displaying difficult behaviour. For parents struggling with endless tears or tantrums, it can be exasperating and leave them feeling at a loss and out of love with their child. The good news is that there are many things parents can do to support behavioral change, and it begins with emotional regulation.
Psychologist and author of Talk Less Listen More, Michael Hawton, says dealing with a child’s difficult behaviour is a common parental concern. He believes that the vast majority of problem behaviour in children is to do with self-regulation. “Difficult behaviour in children usually begins with an emotional overreaction, Hawton explains. “When children lose “it”, they are essentially losing the ability to self-regulate.” Encouraging emotional regulation, where we teach them to gain control over their feelings, is therefore an essential part of parenting.
The early years can be particularly challenging for parents, says Hawton. The typical toddler is impulsive, wilful and unpredictable. “It can just be a collision of not enough sleep, the wrong food, a bad moment and you have this confluence of factors resulting in a complete meltdown.” But there’s a reason why these years are charged with emotion. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls our feelings. It keeps growing until we’re in our mid-twenties, explains Hawton, so even through late childhood and adolescence, children are still developing that capacity to be able to regulate emotion.
Hawton, who also runs online parenting courses, believes that the journey to a more harmonious family life starts with helping kids use their “mental brakes” and develop self-control.
Accelerators & Brakes
Parents can help their children learn to control impulsive behavior (accelerators) and develop impulse-control skills (brakes) says Hawton. Children who develop defiant behaviour have really good accelerators but poor brakes. “Children can be taught how to successfully wrestle with frustration,” he says. “As a parent you can help them grow connections in their mind in a way that enable them to use their mental brakes better.” Research shows that children who can control their impulses do better in social and academic situations. And, importantly, it will help improve family life.
Most behaviour can be sorted into ABNS (annoying but not serious), Wanted (the behaviours we wish to develop and encourage) and Unwanted (the more serious behaviours such as hitting and throwing tantrums), argues Hawton. “Parents need to identify what behaviour they’re prepared to live with or ignore and what behaviour they won’t tolerate,” he says.
Many behavioural difficulties are the results of not having consistent boundaries in place, says Hawton. “For way too long we haven’t given parents a permission slip to be able to put limits on their kids because of the positive parenting trend.” You don’t have to be positive with your children all the time, Hawton explains. “Kids need to be loved, but they also need to have limits in order to learn flexibility. Research shows that kids do far better in environments that provide them with warmth, love and structure.”
Parents simply listening in an empathic way can resolve some difficult behaviour, says Hawton. You teach them a language that they can use as they grow older. “You can sometimes de-escalate the emotion and help them self-regulate if you listen to them at a emotional feeling level,” he says, adding that these times are an opportunity to strengthen the bond with your child.
The best way to deal with your child’s meltdown is to respond quietly and calmly. “If you yell at them, their accelerators work harder and this leads to high emotion which intensifies the problem.” The reason parents yell, is because they panic and they don’t know what else to do, explains Hawton. Approach the problem less emotionally and hold yourself together if you want your child to do the same. The key to keeping calm is to practice before a crisis, just as a pilot does. This way you can avoid panicking when it does occur.
Develop your own drop-down menu of tactics for dealing with stressful situations, suggests Hawton. It’s important that your strategies are established ahead of time so you can access them at a moment’s notice. By having a simple, easy-to-remember model of what to do, parents have a better chance of responding consistently and calmly. Regularly review your own drop-down menu or even write it down and place it somewhere prominent.
It’s important to remember that there’s no malice behind your child’s behaviour, says Hawton. “A child’s capacity for controlling their emotions is related to their developmental stage,” explains Hawton. “Frustration tolerance is an ability that continues to grow all the way through childhood.”
“There’s a sense that you can love your kids but not really like them much at times.” The reason parents get in that bad place, explains Hawton, is because they take umbrage at their child’s rudeness or defiance and they don’t know how to help their child deal with it. Hawton says that most parents are trying their best. “No one plans to scream and yell at their kids, but they don’t know what to do instead.”
Life with a challenging or “difficult” child doesn’t have to be a perpetual battleground. “Keeping calm, in control and managing our responses are key to helping our children regulate their emotions.”