When a child gets under you skin!

Published Categorized as anxiety, behaviour management, Understanding emotions

I am going to ask you (as a parent/carer/teacher/anyone who has regular contact with children) to think hard about the emotional response you have when:

  • A child whines
  • A child becomes defiant
  • A child demands attention
  • A child does something socially inappropriate
  • Or, indeed, a child does anything else that might trigger an emotional response in you.

Of course, your emotional response is not always that conscious and chances are, you’re responding emotionally in a similar way to how significant adults responded to you as a child when you did anything that triggered an emotional response in them. While what the child is doing might well be far from ideal, is that child really responsible for your emotional response? (For an answer see many of my posts and videos about emotional intelligence!)

The reality is, many of us feel at least slightly anxious when a child ‘plays up’ in anticipation of what might unfold, any embarrassment that might occur, how much emotional energy we will need to expend to ride out or sort the situation, the fact we’ve often ‘been here before’ and therefore know it’s likely to escalate and, of course, our lack of control of the situation. Without consciousness, this anxiety then often triggers us to respond in exasperated and often thoughtless ways. We might snap at the child and shame them. Our careless responses in turn will be received as rejection by the child, create greater anxiety in the child and very likely increase their ‘testing’ behaviours – and things will escalate in a chain reaction of anxiety and automatic anxious responses in both child and adult. Episodes like this can be repeated many times and become quite entrenched. It is down to the responsible adult to shift this pattern, of course, as the child certainly won’t be able to on their own.

So I am now going to make a bold statement about children’s difficult behaviours to reframe them in a way that can be helpful for the adults who care for them: much of children’s tricky behaviour is ultimately a bid for connection with you. So unfortunately, our anxiety when a child misbehaves and our careless management of it often means we make a child feel less, not more connected. If we start to see a child’s behaviour as a plea for connection and shift our responses accordingly, we can ultimately start to have a beneficial impact on our child’s behaviours.

To consider this further I will reflect upon the children I worked with in a PRU. They craved connection and attention because they generally had not ever received ‘enough’ – especially in the very early developmental stages of life. The slow process of addressing their extreme behaviours and emotional outbursts lay in forming a connection they could trust. A connection that forced attention onto them so they did not have to make their clumsy and often behaviourally tricky bids for it. This could eventually help them feel that people did want to be with them – whatever they did. They eventually felt seen, heard and validated in a way that meant they did not have to be perpetually searching for attention. They eventually became noticeably calmer. But I will add, this could take months, but more frequently, it took years. (They did only see me and the other adults I worked with for a relatively small fraction of their week).

Even when it’s more measured, much behavioural management of children focuses on ‘correcting’ behaviour. Adults respond to misdemeanours understandably in reactive ways, addressing the fall out and trying to help the child understand that their behaviour was unacceptable. This can be reasonably effective with many children. But for the persistent ‘offenders’ whose needs are greater for one reason or another, a more preventative approach is needed. If the child’s ‘attention needs’ start to be met, their anxiety and fear of rejection will be reduced and there will be a noticeable increase in compliance, a reduction in persistent demand and an increased ability to receive ‘guidance’ about misbehaviours without becoming defensive.

So the upshot of this brief blog boils down to two main points:

  1. As the adult, try to consciously manage your emotional responses to a child’s misbehaviour so that your responses are more measured. This in itself can start to shift entrenched patterns.
  2. Make deliberate bids for a child’s attention, initiate activities with your child and search them out to do things with them regularly to ultimately improve your child’s behaviour. (Responding to their bids for attention is not as effective as you making the bids – the feeling of connection comes when they feel you really want to be with them.)

(Being attentively with your child doesn’t have to be all of the time obviously, but bearing in mind I read somewhere that the average amount of deliberate adult attention a child receives in a day is 5 minutes, a focused 20 minutes at bedtime from a parent can go a long way and from a teacher, a 5 minute check-in with a child at break time might have more impact than you’d anticipate – but I suspect most teachers have already intuited this!)