Here are five ways to respond, writes Mark Borg, Jr.
Even if our kids are perfectly polite and well-behaved out in public, most will, at least occasionally, act out at home. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because our kids are comfortable enough to let their guard down in the safety of their own home, they also feel free to express themselves more openly when they are tired, agitated, or bored. Kids have all kinds of unique and creative ways of acting on – and acting out – their feelings. And this is especially true with uncomfortable feelings such as anxieties and insecurities.
Whenever our kids act out a bad feeling, it presents us with a chance to help them learn how to deal with such feelings in healthy and effective ways. In order to address our kids’ difficult behavior, we need to empathize with them first.
Address the actual incident
Sometimes, we hear about our kids’ behaviour from others. When we get a tipoff from other parents, teachers, or friends, let’s find out what our kids’ take on it was first before addressing the situation. A curious, rather than a confrontive, approach will best serve this purpose.
Ask them why they are acting out
Ask them why they think they responded in the way that they did, and encourage them to explore their feelings. Be empathetic to their response and then ask how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of their own behaviour.
Share the uncomfortable feelings we also had when we were growing up
When we tell them about how we acted out our own anxieties and insecurities, what we learned, and how we were able to deal with them, we help our children understand that their feelings are relatable and that there are healthy ways to address them. Sometimes, the accounts of our biggest mistakes from our youth are the most healing for our children who are struggling with feelings of isolation, frustration, and self-hatred.
Discuss different ways to respond
Talk about how our child’s unmeasured response produced an unfavorable result and what could be done differently next time. Explore different options and discuss the possible outcomes for each. We can also offer tools for achieving a more favourable result, such as “count to 10 before you react,” “remove yourself from the situation,” or “state that you are angry and need to respond later.”
One way to do this is to encourage our kids to remember their own behaviour when they see others engaging in something similar. This step is crucial because our kids may be trying to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable and connected to others. But if they recognize their own behaviour in others and choose to empathize, they will see that their feelings are shared – and that they are not alone.
Empathy really is essential to helping our kids choose better behaviour. While it certainly is challenging for us to revisit our own anxieties and insecurities, doing so allows us to help our children work through their feelings and analyze their own behaviour. These vulnerable conversations also allow us to connect more authentically with our children and those parts of ourselves that we thought we’d left behind. By modeling an empathetic approach to our children when they are struggling the most, we enable them to do the same to others who are grappling with the same issues.
- Mark B. Borg, Jr, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst