Think of Your Child as 'Distressed' Not 'Bad'

02/23/2017 08:18 pm ET

Think of Your Child as Distressed not ‘Bad’

So many times during the day a child doesn’t follow the rules and routines, speaks in a negative tone, and tries to do things ‘their way’ not your way. We yell at our kids to listen because they are being ‘bad.’

The problem with the word ‘bad’ is it doesn’t tell us anything that helps us understand the infraction. How do we know what to do in each situation if we don’t first understand it? How can we call something ‘bad’ when we don’t know the cause?

I recommend using the word distressed instead. The child is distressed for some reason and their behavior or action reflects this. Now it’s our job to figure out the underlying cause and express our understanding and the negative action vanishes because the child feels you know the meaning of their behavior.

The Parental Intelligence Approach

1.This approach is called Parental Intelligence. It means the parent steps back and takes in the scene. Without reacting, the parent monitors the sequence of the actions, notices if there are patterns, and begins to question what the behavior means.

2.After stepping back it’s natural to self-reflect on how the parent feels. Maybe you feel disregarded, disrespected, angry, saddened. Use these feelings to understand more about the behavior.

3.Now it’s time to look for the crux of the distress expressed through the behavior. What is on your child’s mind? Why did the child do what he did? This is when the parent begins to understand their child’s inner world demonstrated by their outer action.

A typical example is when one older sibling hits another younger one. Maybe the younger wants the older child’s toy because he wants to be like him. Maybe the hitting is thus the expression of sibling rivalry.

Well, now we have something to talk about with the child. We might have a discussion about how it feels to be an older brother. The child explains his frustrations and irritations. The mother explains that his hitting was telling her something that he can now explain in words. The distress is clear. So much better than just calling the older sib ‘bad’ and not getting to the root of the matter.

4.Then the parent can consider the child’s developmental level. Is he able to empathize with his younger brother. Maybe not. Maybe that’s too much to expect at his age. Or, maybe he can understand the younger sib’s wish to do what the older sib can do. Then the older brother may even offer the toy to his little brother.

5.Finally we have come to problem solving. This naturally occurs because we oriented ourselves to distress not badness. The children find alternative ways to express themselves and the hitting is gone! Problem solved.

This brief example demonstrates how changing one’s outlook to distress followed by understanding rather than ‘badness’ followed by punishment and resentment solves everyday problems and strengthens the parents-child relationship. The child now know he can trust his parent with his problem and not act out with untoward behavior. Everybody wins!

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior found on Amazon and wherever books are sold. Visit Laurie at her website for more guidance: http://lauriehollmanphd.com.

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