In this episode: A parent writes that her 5-year-old scratched up her husband’s car with a rock, and the damage will cost thousands of dollars to repair. She and her husband are furious, of course, but they haven’t spoken to their son about the incident yet, and she’s wondering the best way to approach it. “We are both so mad,” she writes, “we don’t know what to do.”
Transcript of “Destructive Behavior – Why It Happens and What We Can Do”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a parent who woke up in the morning to find the exterior of her husband’s car severely damaged by their five-year-old son. And this mom says that both she and her husband are too furious to speak with their boy about the incident. They’re asking for some advice about the right approach to take.
Here’s the email I received:
“Hi, Janet. I’ve been reading your book and finding it very helpful since the birth of our second son, who is two and a half months. Last night our eldest son, who is five years old, apparently picked up a rock and, while we were talking to our neighbor for two minutes after returning from the park, must have written all over his father’s car. We put two and two together this morning when we first noticed the damage. It looked like my husband’s car had been keyed and the mirror was severely scratched. This will mean maybe thousands of dollars in repairs. We are both so mad we don’t know what to do. We told our son that we were too mad to talk about it right now, and that we would talk about it later tonight. What is the right approach for an issue like this? Please help.”
Okay, I hope this advice isn’t too late for these parents, I hope this is helpful. I have to say that sometimes when I’m considering addressing a certain parent’s concern in a podcast or in an article, I actually start imagining the criticisms and backlash I’m going to get. And, in this case, I’m imagining that, one, people will be shocked that I am not suggesting a punishment for this behavior and, two, that I will be accused of blaming these parents for what their child did. Only the first of these two criticisms is actually true.
I love that these parents are reaching out for help for this situation. It is such a good sign and, no, this is not their fault that their child did this. However, the incident is a reflection of something that’s going on in this family and the condition of the relationship that they have with their son.
When children behave in a manner that they know is not welcome by us, it a reflection of their discomfort and disconnection. And when it escalates to something this serious and intentional, that means there is a lot of disconnection here that this child is feeling. It’s very uncomfortable to be a child who would behave in this manner. It’s a big call for help.
I want to talk a little bit about connection vs. disconnection, what that really means. It doesn’t mean parents aren’t spending enough time with their child. It doesn’t mean that parents don’t care about their child, or that they don’t love their child. It doesn’t mean that parents are too strict. What it means is that our child doesn’t feel seen and accepted by us. They have uncomfortable feelings and they feel alone in these feelings. It’s a scary place to be.
What do I mean by a child feeling he isn’t seen and accepted? Whenever children behave in a manner that they know is not welcome by us, they are, in a sense, waving a little flag. They’re saying, “Hey, hi, help.” And most parents, I imagine these parents as well, will see that and be able to give the child what they need. They’ll see that hurt or hello in a child’s hitting, let’s say, and they’ll be able to say, “You’re hitting, I’ve got to stop you.”
The first thing I would do generally in these situations is physically stop the behavior. Make this look as comfortable and easy as you can — matter of fact — just stopping them. We’re still much bigger and stronger than our children.
And then, ideally, we notice, “Wow you feel like hitting. That made you want to hit when I said that, when I did that.” We notice and actually accept the feeling behind that behavior.
I think we can all relate to feeling like pushing limits or doing inappropriate things. Children feel like this much more often than an adult would. Their cognitive development is not on par with the maturity of their prefrontal cortex, which means their ability to exert self control… that part is very immature and takes years to develop.
They need to feel safe, not only physically in that we’re going to stop them, but even more importantly, safe in their own feelings of lashing out. It’s safe for you to have that feeling of hitting me. I’m here to stop you.
I almost want to say to parents sometime to not necessarily to say out loud, but to have the thought themselves, “Don’t worry I’m not going to let you hit me.” Because that will help us be in a helpful attitude that is calming, that is giving our child the messages that he or she needs in these moments.
Now most of us are able to do that a lot of the time, but there are also a bunch of other feelings children express that get away from us. I know this because of my own experience as a parent, and because of the parents that I’ve worked with for the last 24 years.
Just recently, I had a phone consultation with a parent who was confused, because she knew that she was accepting and allowing her child’s feelings. And this child also had a younger sibling that threw her off balance, as it does every child. It’s really a heart wrenching time for a child. And she knew that she was accepting his feelings, but the ones that she was accepting were the ones that were clear to her, which were when she would verbalize to him how difficult it was to have a sibling. And he would seem to agree or sometimes share specifically about that. Also, when he had a big crying spell, she was able to hold space for that.
But then we got into specifics, and she shared a number of interactions that she had with her child in which she didn’t realize that she was invalidating his feelings, dismissing his feelings, rejecting his feelings. We’re not going to be perfect, that’s okay, but some children need to be seen in these moments even more than others, because maybe they’re more sensitive and they have more fear.
Some of the examples that this parent gave that I was able to help her see were that her child would say, “I can’t put my shoes on,” or “I can’t wash my hands before dinner.” And the mother, believing that she should be encouraging his independence, would say something like, “You can do that yourself. You know how to do that. Yes, you can.” And this boy could do those things himself, but what he was asking for was to be seen in his overwhelmed state. What he was asking for was help. He couldn’t do it then. He needed that connection and somebody to understand and help him through.
There are other common ones that we miss. These little things that children say that don’t seem to make sense. They seem unreasonable. Or sometimes it’s the responses that they have to things, emotional responses, that just make no sense and they get us angry, and they seem bratty.
We’ve all been there. There’s no shame in this at all. It’s hard to see when a child rejects the food that you made especially for him or says, “I don’t want that baby to even look my direction.” Or says that he hates his teachers in preschool, when these parents know quite well that he has bonded with them and he does like them. It’s these random expressions of emotion that we tend to push back on, because they really don’t make sense, and it is harder to have an attitude of empathy towards behavior that seem bratty, mean, angry. We will naturally put up defenses to that ourselves, or get angry, or frustrated, or annoyed. It’ll be hard to give our child what they need.
Understanding is a challenge for all of us. This is a process of being in a relationship with a child or children who, again, can seem very cognitively advanced but they’re very, very immature in the way they handle their feelings, and it takes time for them to develop this and it takes a lot of modeling on our part. Every time we get dysregulated ourselves in these situations or we lash back or we get impatient even, we’ve now, without meaning to, created more fear and disconnection.
They don’t understand me, they dislike me, they’re against me, I’m alone and I’m in a really, really scary place inside myself.
Attaining that overall attitude of empathy toward our child is one of our biggest challenges as parents.
That loneliness that a child feels… again, the parents could be there all day long with them, giving them attention and they can still feel fear and shame and separate in these feelings that they have. And the more distant they feel the further they might have to go to hold up those signs for us. “Hey, help, I’m struggling.”
There’s behavior that we can all understand a little bit more readily as dysregulated behavior: yelling, screaming, lashing out in terms of hitting, kicking, throwing things. It might be easier for us to relate to that as a tiny uncomfortable little child. But when children do these things that seem more intentional it’s much harder. But it’s coming from the same place as that really obvious lashing out.
How would I handle this if this were my child? I would consider, whoa how did we get so disconnected? We’ve been so busy with the baby, we’ve been missing flags and calls for help here. We maybe have been caught up in our own difficulties and stress and impatience, taking our child’s behavior personally. “What’s the matter with you?! Come on, stop doing that.”
I would look at what’s going on and really consider how it got to this point. I wouldn’t spend a lot of energy thinking about telling our child how wrong this behavior was. I’m sure as he was doing it he was feeling how wrong it was, and he kept doing it. That’s a lot of discomfort inside. I would forgive him. I would work on building a bridge back to him, which we can certainly do at any time. It usually doesn’t take much, because children want it so badly. They welcome it. Shifts can happen almost immediately.
I would look at the way I’ve been responding, how I’ve been perceiving my child, because that will dictate how I will respond. I would look into my heart and see what I really feel about him lately. Children are definitely at their worst at this time of life when there’s a new sibling. We will probably never see our child in a less attractive light. Feel for him, if you can. Know that he did not want to do this. He doesn’t know himself why he did it, I’m sure. It’s not a reasonable act. I would bring him back to you after forgiving him and then forgiving yourself for any missteps you might have made, because we all make them. And one of the incredibly wonderful things about children is that they will show us where they need our help — what we need to fix.
I think the challenge when something like this happens, or even if it’s on a daily basis that children just seem to be acting out and treating us so horribly, the challenge is to peel off those layers and really see the vulnerability, to see that the further our child is pushing us away, in terms of their behavior, the more desperate they are for us to bring them back to us with forgiving hearts wide open.
And in the moment when talking to my son, I would say something like, “I wish I would’ve noticed so that I could’ve stopped you ’cause I know you didn’t want to do that to daddy’s car. It must have been so uncomfortable for you to be doing something you know would upset us so much. Yes of course we got angry, but please know that we’re always, always here for you and we want to help you not blame you, we’re on your side.”
I don’t know if that’s what these parents wanted to hear or anyone wanted to hear, but that’s what I believe. I hope it helps.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.
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