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Why A Child’s Behavior Is Not What You Think It Is

🕑 9 minutes read
Posted September 23, 2020

We’ve all seen it or experienced it:  a child having a meltdown at a store, yelling, kicking, crying and screaming at his mother.  As parents, we cringe, worrying what other people will think. We feel embarrassed, knowing that others will likely judge us and think we are a bad parent.  We feel angry and sad, knowing that others will likely think we have a “bad” child who just needs better, stricter parenting.

Big sigh.

This is the reality of the world we live in.  A world in which any so-called “bad” behaviors (aka intense emotional experiences) are immediately judged, shunned and thought of as just wrong.  As parents, caregivers and teachers we have often been taught that we must tame or get rid of that behavior. We end up going through life feeling anger, resentment and shame for not being able to control our own behaviors or those of our children.

But how does this view help any of us?  The truth is it doesn’t. We have been conditioned to believe that bad behaviors happen due to purposeful intention, but when we really dig deeper and look at the neuroscience behind these so-called “bad behaviors”, we see something totally different:  LACK OF SAFETY.

Everything I discuss going forward in this article is from the work of Dr. Mona Delahooke, author of Beyond Behaviors, and based on the groundbreaking findings of Unyte’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Dr. Stephen Porges and the Polyvagal Theory.

What Behaviors Really Mean

We have all been taught and conditioned to think that negative behaviors of children are purposeful and intentional.  Even if you don’t believe this consciously, subconsciously many of us have this programming and thus we react with anger or frustration when we see behaviors that go against compliance.  Furthermore, we often move quickly to “fix” that behavior without really understanding the true meaning of it. 

Based on new neuroscience, we know now that behaviors such as meltdowns, tantrums, hitting, yelling, defiance, controlling, moving around when required to sit, annoying repetitive movements, and even stalling to go to bed (to name a few) are really an indication of what state the nervous system and body are in:  STRESS.

When we can look at behaviors from this lens, then we can let go of the view that children are doing these behaviors on purpose, and instead of punishing, disciplining and disconnecting from them, we can use a more connected approach to address the root cause of the behavior being lack of safety in the body.

I must stress clearly that none of what I am saying is to shame or guilt parents, caregivers or anyone who works with children.  We have all been conditioned to see behaviors as something to fix, but we can use the science now to change the way we view behaviors and use more effective approaches going forward.

In addition, I want to say that some behaviors may be intentional, but starting to ask the questions: “is this a stress response?” or “is this intentional?” can help us differentiate and treat the problem more effectively.

Connecting Behaviors To The Stress Response & The Neuroscience Of Safety

Thanks to Dr. Stephen Porges’ groundbreaking founding of the Polyvagal Theory, we understand the nervous system so much better and the implications of the states of the nervous system on behaviors.

To understand negative behaviors, such as a tantrum or meltdown, or perhaps even your own anger or rage as a parent and adult, we need to have quick review of the three states of the Autonomic (meaning automatic) Nervous System (known as the ANS).  

Dr. Mona Delahooke uses the colors green, red and blue to describe the different states or pathways of the nervous system response to life and stress.  

You can also watch Dr. Delahooke’s in depth video on the below here.

Green (SAFE) Calm, focused, happy, joyful, socially engaging and connecting with others (known as the Ventral Vagal State).  

A child in this state is more compliant, happy and playing, as he/she is feeling safe and regulated emotionally and in body.

Red (NOT SAFE) Fight or flight state.  This is the stress state.  Jaw clenches, body tightens, feeling anxious, body is getting ready to mobilize, move or fight (known as Sympathetic arousal state).  

A child in this state is not feeling safe and is feeling threatened (stressed).  Behaviors exhibited can be tantrums, meltdowns, screaming, hitting, defiance, and not so obvious pre-Red state behaviors are repetitive body movements, not sitting still, annoying behaviors, stalling at bedtime tactics.

Blue (NOT SAFE) Shut down.  Immobilized.  Can’t focus, eyes looking down, face is blank, shut off, numbed out (known as Dorsal Vagal state).  This is a more severe state of stress.

A child in this state will tune out, look down, seem numb or frozen, and won’t talk.  Children who tend to be in state often can get overlooked because they come across as compliant, but they may be in shut down so it’s important to look at the behaviors for cues.

When we start to perceive stress (or threat) in our environment, our first ‘go to’ is the Green response to try to help ourselves; if this doesn’t work, then we move in Red and if that doesn’t work then we shut down into Blue.  This is the evolutionarily built in process of our nervous system response to threat (stress).  

One of the main things to understand is that these different states are all AUTOMATIC responses to perceived threat in the environment.  They are BODY responses that happen really fast (and not in conscious, higher thinking brain awareness) due the process of neuroception (coined by Dr. Stephen Porges), which is the automatic, subconscious nature of our nervous system constantly scanning for threat.  Some people (and kids) nervous systems are wired for more heightened neuroception and sensitivity to threat.

Entering A Paradigm Shift

Knowing all of the above, we can shift the lens through which we see behaviors from “what’s wrong with you?” (implying the child consciously chose to misbehave that way), to “what’s happening with you, inside your body, that is causing you to feel unsafe and react this way?”

Dr. Mona Delahooke says that when we see a negative behavior, we can first ask ourselves:  Is this an intentional response or a stress response?

This is a paradigm shift because it is looking at behavior from not only a top down (conscious, higher thinking brain, intentional) causality point of view, but a more holistic mind-body connection point of view that many of these negative behaviors are due to automatic body (bottom-up) reactions to stress that then send signals to react in an attempt to get to safety.  Behaviors like your child not sitting still while at dinner can be seen as a body adaptation to move in order to soothe the nervous system back to safety.

How would you treat your child differently if you saw his behavior as a stress response?  Would you discipline and punish him? Would you get angry or agitated with him? Or would you perhaps choose to soothe that stress response, knowing intuitively that when you are stressed and someone is compassionate towards you that this helps you to feel much calmer and better able to handle the stressor?

Let’s look at an example to understand this on a practical level.  Your child is stalling at bedtime, asking for yet another book. You tell her it’s time to go to bed, tuck her in and leave the room.  The child gets out of bed and comes to your room to see you. This is a sign the child is entering a stress state and is using the Green pathway (social engagement and connection) to calm her nervous system stress response.  You get upset with her and send her back to her room. She moves into the Red pathway and starts to cry and scream (fight/flight). You tell her she must stay in her room and go to sleep. Eventually, after enough failed attempts, she moves into the Blue pathway, shuts down, and eventually falls asleep. 

If you knew her attempts to not go to sleep was a stress response, a lack of feeling safe, how would you have helped that child differently?

Getting Back To Safety By Changing Your Response To Behaviors

Understanding behaviors as a body response to stress can allow us to shift the way in which we react to our children’s behaviors.   

Knowing that the Green pathway leads to calm, compliance and better behavior, wouldn’t it be best to use this pathway to help our children’s behavior?

As humans, we heal through love and connection, not anger, discipline and punishment.  We change when someone believes in us as it mirrors what’s possible for us. Social development and emotional regulation happens in relationships, not alone on your own to figure it out while in a time out.

As parents, we can choose social engagement, safety, connection and compassion to help our children get back to the Green pathway, feel safe, and be better able to conquer their stress and fears.  By doing this, we can help to re-tune a child’s nervous system as well.

How To Change Your Reactions

As a parent or person who works with children, I invite you to enter this paradigm shift (based on cutting edge neuroscience) of adopting a new view of behaviors. 

Should you choose to accept it, your mantra to embody going forward is:  

  1. I see my child’s behavior as a result of a lack of feeling safe (vs. he’s not listening to me and misbehaving).
  2. I respect and value my connected relationship with my child (more than her listening to me and obeying me).
  3. I prioritize relational safety for my child (vs. rewards and punishments).
  4. I let go of unrealistic expectations of behaviors that I know my child cannot attain while in the unsafe zones of the Red and Blue ANS pathways, and based on his/her emotional development stage (not age).
  5. I see “annoying” behaviors as adaptive responses to stress (vs. purposeful, intentional responses).  I do not look to “fix” the behavior, but first understand it better.
  6. I choose a compassionate response in order to maintain connection and safety.

How To Help Your Child

If you want your child to develop better behaviors and more resilience in life, then helping your child to get back to safety needs to be your top of mind goal.  From a place of safety, a child has so much more opportunity for growth and development in terms of behaviors.

The ways in which you can help your child get back to safety and the Green path is to socially engage and connect with them from a place of compassion and love.  When you do this, the body’s response shifts from Red or Blue to Green. Also, “how” you are and the energy in which you engage with your child’s challenges can matter much more than the words you use.  A soft tone of voice, relaxed body gestures and a loving energy can help immensely to get your child out of the Red.

When your child is engaging in a “negative behavior”, spend some extra time with them helping them feel safe and coming up with solutions that feel safe for them to shift their behaviors.  If bedtime is hard, start the process earlier and give extra connection time.  

No matter what the behavior or challenge, choose love, connection and safety always (or as often as you can, as we are human after all!).  And, if you have a bad moment, forgive yourself, as practicing love and compassion towards yourself will help you to weather the storms of parenting much better than being hard on yourself.

And, as you learn to re-tune your child’s nervous system, you will likely re-tune your own towards greater safety, resulting in a win-win overall.  Worth the effort? Definitely.

About Afshan

Afshan Tafler is a Whole Life Coach who helps clients transform their health and their lives through a holistic approach to healing. Using a combination of Mind-Body Coaching and, scientifically proven, energy psychology techniques to help her clients achieve optimal mind-body health, she’s become a sought-after wellness and parenting expert. Afshan’s been featured on leading Parenting summits such as Mindful World ParentingBeyond ParenthoodThriving ChildrenParenting Like A Pro and Passionate About Parenting. Afshan is also a mom to a special needs child and is a proponent of Conscious Parenting and is passionate about coaching parents with sensitive and spirited children to thrive in their relationships.  You can learn more about Afshan and her services at www.illuminateu.ca.

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