Are You Making Bad Behavior Worse?

Written by Dona Matthews, Ph.D

Published on https://www.psychologytoday.com

Anger and defiance are normal responses to feeling threatened or afraid. That’s true for children as well as adults, whether the threat is real and outside ourselves, or inside, as happens when we’re deeply upset or overwhelmed with embarrassment, grief, or disappointment. Anger or defiance can relieve a sense of powerlessness, and temporarily numb the pain.

Young children don’t have the necessary tools for managing their upsets. They don’t have the brain capacity to put their disappointments into context, to soothe themselves, or regulate their responses. Punishing them for being difficult is not only unfair, but it’s also counter-productive. It just makes them feel more powerless, and angrier.

If punishment makes bad behavior worse, what does work when children misbehave? What can you do when your child is angry, difficult, or defiant?

  1. Be fully present, with calm, loving empathy. An angry or defiant child is suffering. They feel threatened. So, resist the urge to yell back or punish. Don’t let your own emotions be triggered by your child’s bad behavior. If you speak harshly or punish them, you’ll be making their world scarier and increasing the likelihood of further explosions. Instead, be a grownup. Take a deep breath and be fully present to your child’s pain. You’ll be modeling the emotional skills your child needs to calm themselves down.
  2. Acknowledge the reason for the anger. By calmly showing your child you understand why they’re upset (whether or not it seems reasonable to you), they will feel safer, and better able to feel the vulnerable emotions driving the anger. That’s true whether they’re feeling grief over a broken toy, hurt over a harsh word, or fear of a bully.
  3. Let them know all emotions are acceptable. Even “bad” emotions—anger, envy, hopelessness, sadness—are honest and real. Don’t tell your child to calm down or to act appropriately. Instead, welcome their feelings, whatever they are, and be grateful they trust you enough to share their feelings with you. Your acceptance allows your child to accept their negative feelings, instead of trying to repress them, which never goes well.  
  4. Tell them they can’t act on their anger. Kids should never be allowed to hit, bite, scratch, or kick others, including their parents. If your child does this, they are asking for you to set limits and help them contain their anger. You might say "You can be as mad as you want, but I won't let you hit me or anyone else. My job is to keep us all safe. You can tell me how mad you are without hurting me."     
  5. Stay close and connected. An angry, difficult, or defiant child is frightened. They need a calm, strong, adult to help them feel safe enough to settle down and figure out how best to move on. Instead of a time-out, try a time-in, where you stay present and connected.  
  6. Do some role-playing, then reverse the roles. Take turns being your angry child, and being the villain of the piece who made your child angry. Feel free to exaggerate. Use props and costumes if you like. Watch tears turn into laughter and creative solutions arise, as your child feels listened to and understood.  
  7. Create a MAD list of healthy options for managing anger. This might include a few rounds of deep breathing, putting on some music, dancing, going to a happy quiet place, pushing the “Pause” button and counting to ten, going outside for a run, working on a hobby, creating an artistic product that expresses the anger, yelling at a stuffed animal, and lots more.
  8. Help your child identify the warning signs. Help your child notice when they’re getting annoyed, before it escalates. With a young child, prevention is your job: make sure they’re getting a good balance of nutrition, sleep, exercise, and cuddles. As your child gets older, help them see what’s happening before it becomes a problem. That’s a good time to go to the MAD list.
  9. Do some collaborative problem-solving. Your goal is to help your child develop the coping mechanisms they need to navigate life’s challenges without getting angry or defiant. Once the storm has passed, find a quiet moment to discuss what happened, and different ways they might handle things in future. Help them feel more powerful, as they learn to prevent problems and gain control of their own reactions.
  10. Take good care of yourself. You’re teaching your child how to behave every minute you spend with them. Do your best to have good healthhabits yourself—sleep, nutrition, exercise, fresh air—so you can respond well when challenges occur. Do your best to be a good role model of positive emotional regulation, dealing calmly and kindly with life’s challenges.
  11. Be patient. Self-regulation takes years of practice and experience. Many adults never get there, so be patient as your child learns to handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
  12. Get help if you need it. Some people are more volatile than others, and require professional help. If you or your child is frequently aggressive, explosive, or oppositional, and these approaches don’t work, you might benefit from getting help.

By helping your child feel safe enough to express their anger and explore the feelings underneath, you will be giving them an essential tool for success with school and friendships, and, eventually, for building healthy adult relationships, succeeding in their work, and parenting their own kids.

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