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Most Child Behavior Problems Are (Temporary) Relationship Problems- And Most Parenting Advice Just Makes Them Worse

by Todd Sarner, MA MFT. Director of Transformative Parenting

After years and years of working with parents and children, it is my firm belief that most behavior problems that we experience with our children are actually relationship problems, usually just temporary ones, and that most of the parenting advice that you find out there is actually making these problems worse.

Many of you already know this because you’ve experienced it. Your children have displayed troubling or frustrating behaviors and you’ve done your best to ask for advice or search the internet or buy a book…sometimes lots of books.

But when it comes time to try out this advice you usually have one of two results. Sometimes, the advice works at first but then stops working over time. Other times, it never works at all! You can be left feeling pretty frustrated or like something’s wrong with you.

The thing is…most parenting advice is like this because it’s based purely on behaviorism. This is a model that says parenting is about what you do when your child misbehaves to make them stop doing it. This is reactive and doesn’t work because it’s the same as just managing symptoms. It doesn’t address the underlying problem.

Our real job as parents is to be proactive and to understand these underlying issues so we can either avoid them in the first place or confidently and effectively respond to them if they do happen.

Let me ask you some questions…

What is it like for you when you are feeling insecure in your important relationships? Like when you’re fighting with your spouse? Do you behave at your best? Do you get grumpy or frustrated or sometimes snap at people for small things? When you and a loved one are having a hard time and you’re not really feeling connected and they ask you to do something, even a relatively easy thing, do you sometimes say “no” automatically?

Now if that’s true for us as adults…why wouldn’t this be true for children?

I have been working with children and parents and families for a very long time. I have personally consulted 100’s and 100’s of parents and I am absolutely convinced that almost all behavior issues that parents are experiencing with their kids are one way or another tied to relationship issues. And like I said before, usually just temporary issues.

Just so we’re clear, however, I am not saying it’s because you have a bad relationship with your child. That can happen in some cases of course but it’s a more complex issue than that.

Let’s take not listening and defiance for example. The number one reason a child doesn’t listen or is defiant towards a parent (or anyone else) is that they don’t feel connected to them in the moment so they don’t hear them or just instinctively just say “no!”. I explain in other articles and videos how this reaction is actually there to protect your child from being led astray by someone they’re not connected to. And like I said, it’s an instinct. You can’t control instincts with punishment or taking things away or time outs.

In this case, the solution is being more mindful of the fact that we can’t just take relationship for granted, we can’t just assume our child feels connected to us in the moment and that we can just tell them what to do. We know this as adults! We’re not supposed to walk in the room and tell a loved one…or even someone we work with or do business with…what to do. We’re meant to connect first.

And what about issues of aggression? Most aggression, from the obvious stuff like hitting and biting and kicking to temper tantrums or sibling aggression are simply a buildup of frustration that is bubbling over. And guess what the root cause of most frustration is? You guessed it…relationship. Meaning, the thing that frustrates us most as human beings is not being able to hold on to who or what we are most attached to.

This doesn’t mean we never leave our child’s side or that frustration is a bad thing. Frustration is part of life and we want our children to be able to handle it over time. I’m just suggesting there’s a good, logical reason our child is frustrated. Sometimes our job as parents is to apply firm but compassionate limits that help our child get out their tears so they won’t be so frustrated.

Unfortunately, too often the advice we get or the strategy we try involves taking away what our child is attached to (or at least threatening to). The problem is, if our child is already frustrated and we threaten to take away something important to them- like their favorite toy or an upcoming event or we make them go away from us to be alone because of their behavior…it can only serve to frustrate them more.

And what about issues of bossiness in children? To understand that, you must understand that one of the main rules of human attachment behavior is that attachment is always a hierarchal relationship. Meaning, it’s not exactly a relationship of equals. When it comes to very close attachment relationships, like between parent and child…it is not an equal relationship like friendship.

Of course we love and respect our kids and don’t think we’re better than them or anything. But attachment is not a relationship of equals. It is a relationship between what we call an Alpha- the one who is the natural authority, who is meant to be in the lead, the who takes care of the other- and the one who is being taken care of.

It always arranges this way. Especially if your child is feeling insecure or disoriented or in need, you can not treat them from an “equals” position… it doesn’t work that way. You have to be in the Alpha position and taking the lead. Because guess what happens if you’re not? THEY will take the Alpha position. It’s an instinct. They don’t think it out, they just do it.

When a child is feeling insecure and they don’t sense an Alpha presence in the lead, they move to be in charge themselves- bossing, telling you and others what to do, acting like a parent. This is a relationship problem. Anything you do from the “equals” place and anything you do with your child in the Alpha position won’t work.

And I like I also said, I am not saying you have a bad relationship with your children. I am saying our children are much more naturally prone to having a hard time feeling secure or connected in relationship at any given point because of their lack of long-term experience and because of their brain development. Especially younger children. Before at least age 7 or 8 children have a harder time holding on and staying connected because the part of their brain that helps them do this is not fully functional yet.

So what do we do with this knowledge? The most important thing is that we just realize that the way we approach behavior problems and how we understand them makes a big difference in how effective we are in solving them. If we see our children as doing things “on purpose” or consciously because they are just trying to push our buttons or something, nothing we do from that place will be effective or feel very good. Parenting will always feel like a struggle.

But if we come from a place of understanding that our child is almost always behaving the way they are as a natural outcome of their sensitivities and their environment and their situation…and that they’re acting out of instinct…our whole approach will work better. We would strive to have a culture in our home that helps children stay connected to us more often. We would react to behaviors in a more calm, grounded way and not take them personally.

What I invite you to do is spend at least a week or so keeping these ideas in mind. Try to be an aware observer of your children’s behavior. Strive to always connect first with your child, especially after time apart or transitions. Notice if there is a problem, what preceded it? Did you connect first or just come in and tell your child what to do? Has your child been dealing with a lot of frustration this week and have they had a chance to get it out with a good cry? And maybe more important sometimes, are you reacting to your child’s behavior based more on what they’re doing or based on what’s going on for you?

At Transformative Parenting, we are dedicated to helping children become emotionally healthy and grow into their greatest potential by helping their parents with the most effective, relationship friendly and developmentally safe parenting information. Information and coaching that helps you be the parent you want to be and that your child needs you to be.

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