| 03.19.2018

Not bad behavior, just big emotions


This is the second article in a series on peaceful parenting. To read the first in this series, visit here.
Too often people assume a child’s negative behavior stems from a place of malicious or purposeful intent. There is the idea that if a child is behaving badly, it is because they are being rebellious, stubborn or annoying. The reality is children are small humans with big emotions — emotions they have not yet figured out how to express. So while we adults generally express our anger, loneliness, sadness and frustration in socially acceptable ways, children express those emotions through temper tantrums, biting, hitting, disobedience or any other number of “misbehaviors.”
Science in the field of childhood development agrees the ability to self-regulate — that is, recognize and control emotions, physical behavior and attention — is a developmental process that begins at birth and continues throughout our life. An article in the academic journal “Motivation and Emotion” synthesized more than 100 research articles and came to the same conclusion.
“Optimal emotion regulation is not a developmental task to be mastered at a certain age … but rather a ‘moving target’ that is continually sensitive to changing goals and contexts,” the article stated.
The most important foundations of this ability to self-regulate happen during toddlerhood and early childhood.
It’s important that as parents, we recognize behaviors for what they are — expressions of needs that aren’t being met. As those needs aren’t met, emotions arise and children begin to express themselves in the only ways they know how. If we punish the expression of these emotions or convey the message that the child should repress them, we are sending the signal that expressing emotions is a bad thing and feelings are unimportant.
I witnessed an apt example of this in Subway a while back.  A mother came in with her 4-year-old daughter  and began to order their sandwiches. The girl was concerned with what kind of cookie she was going to get and kept asking her mom if she could get the white chocolate chip one.
“What kind of meat do you want on your sandwich,” the mother asked, ignoring her daughter’s request for the cookie.
“No! I want a cookie. I want the white chocolate chip.” the daughter began to yell as her frustrations mount.
The mother continued to ignore the pleas for the cookie and told the employee to put ham on her daughter’s sandwich.
“No!” her daughter cried, now in tears. “I don’t want ham.”
Her mother began berating her for behaving badly, crying and yelling. The girl continued to throw her tantrum as the mother got to the end of the line and the employee asked what kind of cookie they wanted with the kid’s meal. The girl began reiterating her previous request and the mom, now thoroughly frustrated, told her daughter that because of her tantrum, she wasn’t going to get a cookie at all. As you may guess, the entire situation didn’t end well.
In this scenario, the child’s mind was working on a different track than her mother’s. While the mother was prioritizing decisions chronologically — order the sandwich first, then the cookie — the girl was prioritizing decisions by importance — which to her meant ensuring the kind of cookie she would get. The girl was trying to express this to her mother, to ensure she was hearing her request, but her mom, focused on her own particular priorities, ignored her daughter.
As a result, the girl felt neglected, unheard and devalued because nobody was listening to her, affirming her or recognizing the importance of her feelings. These negative emotions overcame her and she lashed out with a tantrum.
By expressing to her daughter that her request had been heard and that yes, she could get the white chocolate chip cookie after she ordered her sandwich, the situation would not have escalated to the point of a tantrum.
From the newborn who sleeps all day and is up all night, unable to regulate his night and day sleep cycles, to the toddler throwing a tantrum, unable to regulate his emotions, to the teenager making risky choices with drugs and alcohol as he learns to regulate his impulses and decision-making processes — “bad behaviors” will vanish as we learn about the world, understand the effects of our decisions, learn to further categorize, recognize social cues, build empathy and gain the ability to better express ourselves.
As parents, we need to meet our children where they are and be cognizant of their attempts to express themselves. We need to guide our children gently and lovingly, helping them to recognize what they are feeling and show them safe and acceptable ways to express those emotions instead of punishing them for it.
Kaitlin Moroney can be reached at arg-opinion@uidaho.edu

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