Simple Ideas to respond to a child’s difficult behavior

boy on tricycle text overlay ideas to respond to child's difficult behavior

Have you ever felt puzzled about how to respond to your child when their behavior feels so difficult? It is natural to get frustrated or even angry when this happens, but what if when it comes up, we could be empowered with simple strategies to use to stay calm, nurture our children and keep our relationship with them strong? I present to you my 5 simple ideas to respond to a child’s difficult behavior.

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Frame the behavior
Relationship first
Sensitive Observation
Acknowledge and validate
Problem-solve together

Maybe you popped in here because you are having some difficult stuff going on with your children.

First, know you are not alone. We have all been there. It is completely natural to feel frustrated and uncomfortable when we face obstacles in our parenting.

Second, know that you are not helpless. There are many simple things you can do and learn to handle just about anything that comes your way. You can also find and accept help when you don’t know what to do.

I will share with you some of the ways you can equip yourself for loving confident interactions with your children when they act in trying, yet normal, ways that seem troubling to face.

My learning curve

Before I was a parent, I thought because I enjoy children so much that motherhood would be easy for me. (I know, I’m laughing, too). You may not be surprised to know that is not how it went right away (or yet).

Don’t get me wrong, I adore being a mother and I think I am a great one, but it is a lot of work and has truly shown me more of my weaknesses than any other thing in my life ever has.

I have had to unlearn, learn, and re-learn so many layers of beliefs, habits, behaviors, skills, virtues, and knowledge that I never knew I didn’t know. It has been humbling, but also empowering to do this work.

I encourage you to humble yourself, do the work, and put in the real effort it takes. You will be so glad you did as you are rewarded by the joy you will find in your relationship with your child.

Point of clarification

Before we start, these ideas are intended for a typical family situation and sometimes “simple ideas” are not enough. And that is OK. If you need more support or a professional, I encourage you to get the help you and your child deserve.

I am not minimizing the challenge that any child or caregiver faces nor am I trying to over-simplify anything you might be facing in your unique situation.

Secondly, behaviors cannot be “parented away”. I am not suggesting that any behavior can be. I want to be clear that this is not about changing your child. This is about crafting your response to be healthy, respectful, positive, and relationship-building.

Third, I want to empower you to know that you are the best parent for your child and you can handle them, you are enough, you can do better, and you also are doing great right now. You can strengthen yourself for loving confident interactions with your child no matter the challenges that come.

Let’s get this Altogether…Mostly. Ready?

1. Frame the Behavior

The first idea I have to help face resistant actions in our children is to adjust how we think about the behavior we are observing. Behavior is communication. The way a child acts is a message to you about something that is happening in his or her body, mind, or heart and we are to meet it with empathy.

Because behavior is the communication of an unmet need (more on that in a minute), our responsibility as parents is to truly listen with empathy to what they are “saying” when they act this way.

Behavior is communication of an unmet need.

AltogetherMostly.com

A small child’s behavior, no matter how it feels to you, is not a personal attack nor is it because of their revenge or spite. Behavior is not happening TO you, you are observing it. Yes, you might be kicked, for example, but in most cases, adults survive a blow from a child. I know it hurts and I am not minimizing that.

I know that the discomfort we feel from these difficult scenes is so real. But when we get angry or aggressive, it can cause feelings of confusion, mistrust, fear, emotional distance, and only exacerbates the situation. Taking our layers of emotions off of it lightens the load and helps us to apply empathy and see it for what it is the communication of an unmet need.

My first idea to help you respond when it feels so hard is to frame the behavior as communication to get curious about.

father and toddler difficult behavior needs relationship first
When we face difficult behavior, remember relationship first

2. Relationship First

No matter the journey you took to become a parent or if you have ever intentionally considered it or not, having a loving connection with your child was the ultimate goal. Relationship with those closest to us is the foundation for life. And without a relationship, we really have no purpose in our parenting. Secure familial attachment for children:

  1. Gives children the confidence and security they need to explore, learn, and develop
  2. Makes it possible for them to experience all of the emotions in a regulated way, having joy and calm and also coping with stress and fear for example
  3. Gives the child a trusted foundation to grow from

We have children because we love them. We love them because we have them. A loving connection based on trust and consistency is required to get to the heart of a child to “hear” what they are communicating.

We have children because we love them.
We love them because we have them.

— AltogetherMostly.com

If you are facing troubling behavior, I would suggest working on your relationship first. Like any relationship, our connection with our children must be cultivated and nurtured.

Connecting with your child

Here are some ideas of how you can connect with your child to put your relationship first:

1. Listen to your child with eye contact when he tells you something.
2. Learn her Love Language (Love Languages Book) and intentionally “speak” her love language daily.
3. Share intentional focused attention time together. Do a puzzle with just him or read with her each night.
4. Speak to your child with the patience and respect you expect for yourself.
5. Spend time together doing things together even if it is (age-appropriate) work, like raking leaves, sorting socks, or washing the car, for example.
6. Go out on a parent/kid date together.

Without a relationship, we really have nothing in parenting. A child might obey out of fear or modify their behavior to avoid negative consequences, but they will not learn or grow outside of the relationship.

When deciding how you will face a situation, be sure to consider how your reaction may affect your bond with your child. Will it drive you apart or bring you together? I am not talking about giving being a permissive parent – allowing them to do anything they want so they will like you. No. Loving parents have boundaries and limits. They also communicate and hold them with the strength of the relationship in mind.

If you are facing troubling behavior, work on your relationship and your bond with your child first.

3. Sensitive Observation

Remembering that behavior is communication, it is important that we are sensitive observers. To understand our child’s message and then respond to their need, we must have the patience to truly listen. This means that we pause to listen even if the words are not clear. By doing so we may find the truth, not just what we think, because that is, honestly, lazy parenting.

For me, this is the most difficult step. It takes so much self-control to be patient and wait to see what I need to know from my child (embarrassing, I know). I have to hold myself back from asking a bunch of questions, giving directions, assuming the answer, and just taking over. It has been a big part of my learning curve.

But how?

What is my child trying to tell me?

Our first line of defense (for a lack of a better word) is to use the HALT method (I am unsure of the origin, so if you know, please share so I can attribute it) to ascertain what your child needs you to know.

Go through a mental checklist. Is your child:
Hungry
Angry
Lonely, or
Tired?

After that, take a breath and think about what else this behavior could mean. Put yourself in her place and think about how this might be making her feel. Is he embarrassed? Does this make him uncomfortable, as examples? Could there be something deeper or super simple?

Then you may ask clarifying questions, acknowledging what you see, if they are based on your sensitive observation.

For example, “I see you don’t want to put your shoes away. I love you too much to let you not do it. Is it hard to do?”

Clarifying questions show our children that we are listening and trying to understand. When we face uncomfortable behaviors from our children, we must slow down to observe sensitively what the real mean of it is.

4. Acknowledge and validate

After we have framed the behavior, considered our relationship, and sensitively observed what is happening, we then acknowledge and validate the child’s perspective.

I believe we are whole persons from the moment we are born. Children have every feeling you do. Of course, they are not as complex and they are not as controlled, but they feel happy, sad, empowered, anger, love, fear, relieved, confused, for example, all from day one. They can’t tell you, but they feel.

“It looks like you are unhappy that I won’t let you touch that plug.”
“I see that you are not leaving the park when I said it was time to go, you love to play here, don’t you?”

Honest feedback loop

Acknowledging and validating a person’s feelings is not a trick or a gimmick to manipulate a certain behavior. It is an authentic way to help the person see that he or she has been understood and seen – honest feedback loop.

Having said that, I have found that it often defuses emotionally escalating situations. Once my child feels understood, often he will begin to get calmer and is more likely to be open to my instruction.

When we acknowledge how they might be feeling about something we validate their personhood and our respect for them. It strengthens our relationship and helps them become more self-aware. Sometimes we are incorrect, but the honest, sensitive effort is a powerful human connector.

When we observe resistant behavior from our children acknowledge their point of view and validate their feelings about it.

5. Problem-solve together

After we have framed the behavior, put our relationship first, observed sensitively, acknowledge, and validated. Now, we can problem-solve together.

Remember I said that we cannot “parent behavior away”? But we can try to find out why they are behaving that way and see if we can help resolve the underlying issue.

Let’s use the example about the shoes from above again and, say something like,

“I see you don’t want to put your shoes away. I love you too much to let you not do it. Is it hard to do?”

If we have eliminated the basics using HALT (see point 3) and sensitively observed if he or she communicating something else, sometimes children will answer with something so simple like,

“I can’t lift the lid on the shoe box very well – it’s heavy!” or

“I just want to play right now.”

Then we have the opportunity to help make it work by taking an action together and creating a workable solution.

“Oh, I didn’t realize that was happening. Will this help?” or
“Yes, playing is so fun, let’s play right after putting your shoes in.”

Listening and problem-solving together help the child feel empowered and more likely to take healthy action by feeling seen and heard. Further, children love to please those they love, they are more likely to want to cooperate out of a place of love and connection.

When our children act resistant to us, we can problem-solve together to find a solution.

To sum it up

There you have it, my simple ideas to respond to a child’s difficult behavior:

Framed the behavior
Relationship first
Sensitive Observation
Acknowledge and validate
Problem-solve together

You do not have to feel puzzled about how to respond to your child when their behavior feels difficult. We can instead feel empowered with simple strategies to nurture our children and keep our relationship with them strong.

Taking Action

If you enjoyed this post, please:

  1. Apply these tips. Come back and tell me about it!
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About the author, Jaime

Jaime Ragsdale
Jaime Ragsdale, Founder of Altogether Mostly

Here at Altogether Mostly, you will find grace, compassion, joy, and beauty. I use empathy and a little tough love to bring out the best in people. I live in the Midwest United States with my loving husband and awesome children. For more about me and Altogether Mostly, please visit my about page here.

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