What’s Up with My Kid?

By Jamie Dalrymple, LMHC

Whether it’s a random temper tantrum, a child’s new obsessive behavior, or a once bubbly teenager turned quiet and withdrawn…at some point, parents will experience bewilderment and concern regarding their child’s behavior. Such concerning behaviors can certainly create stress, worry, frustration, and/or a number of negative emotions. In turn, many find themselves losing patience, sleep, or at times, sanity! Fortunately, several simple, yet insightful tips can facilitate a better understanding of such distressing behaviors which will hopefully lead to more productive responses.

First off, keep in mind that emotions drive behavior. Knowing that emotions directly affect behaviors can assist with getting to the core of the presenting issue. Furthermore, identifying the underlying feelings may help soften the perception of the behavior and therefore, how one responds. For instance, learning that a child’s “deviant” behavior is actually due to his or her overwhelming fear, can help parents better understand and respond in a more supportive and effective way.

Secondly, whether admitted or not, people are emotional beings. God created us with physical, spiritual and emotional needs. Dr. Rick Marks and Dr. David Ferguson identify such core emotional needs in a helpful acronym known as CARESS needs: Comfort, Acceptance, Affection, Appreciation, Approval, Attention, Affirmation, Respect, Encouragement, Security, and Support. When emotional needs are not met, one is in a state of pain, and pain pursues pleasure. Such insight may explain why a teenager (who knows better) engages in unhealthy and perhaps harmful behaviors. During middle and high school years, adolescents begin searching for their identity and a place where they belong. Emotional needs such as acceptance and approval can certainly have a powerful influence on their choices, especially during this developmental stage.

Furthermore, in responding to distressing behaviors, also keep in mind that all feelings are ok, but not all behaviors. Jesus models this truth as he displays an array of emotions in the Bible, including sadness and even anger. One of the main illustrations of this takes place when Jesus overturns the tables of those exchanging money at the temple. He clearly felt angry that the people disrespected the house of prayer. (Matthew 21:12-13). However, Jesus also sets the limit when he states, “In your anger, do not sin…” (Ephesians 4:26). Therefore, the key to effectively responding to problematic behaviors entails validating the identified emotion driving the behavior and setting limits or boundaries on the unacceptable behavior. For example, telling a child who just calmed down after a tantrum that you understand it can sometimes feel frustrating to not get our way; however, yelling and screaming is not allowed or helpful. Together, caregiver and child can collaborate on more effective solutions when feeling frustrated. Responding to loved ones with emotional validation coupled with behavioral boundaries not only enhances the child’s emotional maturity but cultivates a trusting relationship.

All in all, when dealing with distressing behaviors, remember that emotions are driving those behaviors. In addition, all people have emotional needs that need to get met, and when those needs are not met, one is in a state of pain, and pain will pursue pleasure. Lastly, as parents, effective responses to problematic behavior involve both emotional validation and age-appropriate behavioral limits. Thanks to Jesus, we are not defined by our behavior, and neither should our children.