Sharp knee pain, side cramps, or fatigue in the middle of a race can speak volumes to an athlete in tune with her body. And when the discomfort yells loud enough, one of three options is usually deployed: ignore the pain and hope it goes away, slap a quick fix on it, or uncover and address the deeper issue. The most successful solutions are those that find a remedy for the underlying cause. The same philosophy holds true for kids and misbehavior.
Behind every annoying, frustrating, inappropriate behavior is an unmet need that’s begging to be addressed. Parents often treat unwanted behavior (whining, back talking, biting, nose picking, crankiness, interrupting…) as an irritating pest. We try to zap it by grabbing our bug repellant and blasting it away. But ultimately, the pesky behavior is bound to return because the need behind it has not been met. Finding and filling that unmet need is not always easy, but it’s essential to a long term solution.
Let’s look at example with an imaginary mom and her son.
Five year-old Garrett’s mother is a social butterfly who’s mastered her gift of gab. But lately, every time she gets into a conversation, Garrett finds a way to interrupt. Little G’s mom has tried ignoring him, and she’s tried scolding him for being rude. But instead of learning to wait his turn, Garrett’s interrupting is getting more persistent, and his mother’s irritation is rising.
In order to teach Garrett to be more considerate, Mom is asked to think about three critical questions:
- “What is this behavior (interrupting) trying to say?”
- “What is the need at the root of the behavior?” and
- “How can the need be met more appropriately?”
The answer to #1 stands out quickly. Garrett’s interrupting behavior is saying “Mom! I want your attention!” But the answer to #2, the need behind his attention seeking, is not as clear. So, his mother thinks more specifically about the last few interruptions and tries to find common threads.
First, she usually makes sure that Garrett is preoccupied with an activity either alone or with a friend before she dives into a chat session. And she’s observed that Garrett only interrupts after she’s been talking for about 15 minutes or longer. That may seem like an eternity to him, and even though she’s physically close to him, he may feel isolated from her and need some reassurance. She also recognizes that Garrett does not know any other way to get her attention. If he had a less intrusive method, it could be a win-win for both of them.
The Solution: a Secret Code
Mom decides to create a non-verbal code where Garrett can quietly put his hand on her leg if he needs her while she’s talking. To acknowledge him, she’ll take his hand in hers and squeeze it two times. If he squeezes back and lets go, this tells her all is well. But if he squeezes and doesn’t let go, this will be his sign that he needs to talk. At that point, she could politely excuse herself from the conversation while Garrett waits patiently holding her hand.
Next, Mom sits down with her son and offers to team up with him to solve their problem together. She listens as Garrett shares his feelings, and she apologizes for not paying better attention to what he was really saying. Then she suggests the new plan to him, and they give it a practice run over a pretend phone call. During the following weeks, they put the plan into action with great results. Garrett is empowered with a way to politely connect with his busy mom, and Mom learns to see her son’s unwanted behaviors as warning sign that there is an underlying need that’s not getting met.
Mom and son soon discover a new appreciation for each other and grow closer through this victory. Misbehavior, while still annoying, is no longer treated with a quick fix. Instead, it’s listened to as language. Because, after all, behavior really does have something important to say.
Question: What unwanted behaviors are you facing right now? I encourage you to look at them through this new lens. What could they be telling you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.