Don’t Solve the Behavior Problem.

Solve the Real Problem.

Tina Feigal, M.S., Ed.
Copyright © 2011 Tina Feigal

Every day parents call me about their children’s behavior: “He bit the teacher at daycare.” “She won’t go to bed without manipulating every possible angle to stay up.” “He’s trying to get me to buy a cell phone and I think he’s too young. But wow, does he know how to wear me down!”

Of course, this is what I hear … I am, after all, a parent coach! I actually WANT people to tell me what’s happening with their kids, so I can help them resolve it.

But what I find interesting is that we as adults focus on the behavior, not the underlying cause. The behavior is always just the tip of the proverbial ice berg, just an indicator of something big going on underneath. When parents and teachers focus on the ice berg tip, they feel as if they have good reasons: “He’s being so disrespectful and it has to stop.” “I can’t let him just get away with talking to me (or hitting me or biting someone) like that.” The desire to stop the behavior, and stop it now for once and for all, seems overwhelmingly urgent because parents and teachers feel judged if the child in their care misbehaves. They want to get along, not fight with their kids. And they feel responsible for fixing it immediately.

Here’s where we get into trouble: we cannot make someone stop their behavior … a harsh reality, but it’s really true. From the smallest child to the oldest adult, the internal urge to behave, however badly, usually overrides the desire of someone else who wants them to stop it. So the only answer is to dig underneath to the huge slab of ice below the water and see what’s causing the tip.

It takes some time and development of skills to “read” a child to determine what underlying causes of behavior are being expressed. Mostly we’re in too much of a hurry to take this time, but when the pain gets bad enough, I find parents are very willing to spend it on finding true solutions. I am always impressed by how willing they are!

Here are a few tips on figuring out the underlying cause of behavior, so you can resolve it instead of the behavior itself:

1. “He bit the teacher.” This is a child who does not respond well to being touched when the teacher wants him “over here.” She inadvertently sparks a big response when she takes his shoulders to reposition him. Ice berg tip: He bit the teacher. Underlying cause: extreme sensitivity to touch by people who are not well-known to the child. Solution: respect his need to be told verbally what’s expected, and refrain from moving him physically. End of “bad behavior.”

2. “She won’t go to bed without manipulating every possible angle to stay up.” Ice berg tip: She delays bedtime so late that she’s missing sleep and frustrating the whole family. Underlying cause: originally, it was fear of scary things in the dark created by her very active imagination. Now it’s more of a game to see how much energy match her brain can get from her parents (although this is unconscious, it’s true. She shouldn’t be blamed, just redirected.) Solution: engage her in a conversation when it’s not bedtime, so she can hear you. Have her create a chart of the bedtime routine made of photos of herself doing each task. Rehearse bedtime so she gets a map in her brain for how it can look to go to bed without delays, arguments, nagging, and tears. Break the habit of the brain’s energy match by refusing to give emotional energy to her bedtime. Have her consult her chart, complete the tasks, and express how you are looking forward to reading a book when she’s all ready.

3. “He’s trying to get me to buy a cell phone and I think he’s too young. But wow, does he know how to wear me down!” Talk about this at a family meeting, not when your child is begging for a phone (no energy match for arguing about having one.) Give your child the benefit of trust and ask his good reasons for wanting a phone. Listen completely. Say, “Thank you for telling me those good points! Now, if you will allow me a bit to talk about it, I’d like to share how I feel.” After being respectfully heard, he’s willing to listen to you, too. Talk about the responsibility of having a phone: you pay money, you use it at appropriate times, you make sure people you don’t know have no access to your number, and you use it appropriately (repeated for emphasis.) That means you only call close friends and family, you only use it until 8 p.m., you never use it at school, you keep track of it so it doesn’t get lost, and you keep your calls to 15 minutes or less. No gabbing for hours, as each minute costs money. Ask, “Are you able to pay for the phone at this time?” And then go through each point, asking respectful questions. At the end of the discussion, if he’s not able to fulfill the requirements, assure your child that when he is old enough to pay for and manage the phone, he can certainly have one.

All of this takes thoughtful consideration on the part of parents, which means time and effort. It’s time SO well spent, as your certainty about limits and respectful approach pay off in lack of melt-downs and upset in the future. If you’d like help, let me know. Phone, Skype and In-person coaching are all options for learning these ways of approaching kids’ “ice berg tips” that are creating chaos in your home or school. To learn more about coaching, click here.

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