You must have probably heard the term “Acting out” or “Freaking out” which refers to misbehaving. It actually means to act out a need or feeling that you can’t express in words.
So when your three year old hits the baby, or your five year old throws a toy at you, or your seven year old slams the door, they’re acting out. You could respond with punishment. After all, the behavior is clearly unacceptable. But you would be missing the feeling that your child is finding so unbearable that he has to act it out. You would be missing your child’s SOS.
As you set the limit—calmly and kindly—remind yourself that there’s a reason for your child’s behavior. It may not be what you consider a good reason, but it’s her reason.
Then, address the need or feeling that’s motivating her behavior. That gives her the help she needs to cooperate with you. If you don’t address the need, you don’t get to the source of the behavior.
Want some examples of decoding an SOS?
- Children who disrespect us are showing that they don’t feel enough connection, warmth and respect from us. Often, disrespect is a result of parents yelling and indulging in their own tantrums.
- Children who lie to us feel afraid. What in your response is making your child feel so unsafe that she needs to lie to you?
- Children who keep pushing the limits usually need to know the parent is in charge and will keep them (and everyone else) safe—while still loving them. You show them this by setting limits clearly and firmly—but with empathy and understanding. Here’s your formula. In a warm voice: “You wanted X, so you did Y behavior…..I understand. And Y behavior is not okay. because it hurts (a person or thing.) You can do Z instead.”
- Children who are always cranky and uncooperative usually need more sleep, more connection, a physical ailment addressed, or a safe opportunity to cry in a parent’s arms.
- Children who compete with siblings often need to feel more connected to parents, more “seen” and valued for who they are. (Remember, sibling rivalry comes from a competition for scarce resources—your love and delight in the child. Each one needs to feel that you could never love anyone else more.)
- Children who “don’t listen” have usually been trained not to take us seriously unless we yell; they’re asking us to calm down and connect.
- Children who lash out aggressively are carrying unbearable fear inside. They need to laugh (when they aren’t angry) to begin to melt the fear, and then, when they feel safe enough, to experience that fear in your presence. This will look like a tantrum, but will be followed by tears and then affection and cooperation.
- Children who are always rebelling usually need to feel more powerful, competent, and respected. They need us to listen and let them know we hear, even when we don’t agree.