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The Amber Light Within

What do we mean when we say a kid is well-behaved? If usually has a lot to do with making our job as the adult a lot easier. Conversely with ‘bad’ behaviour, what exactly is ‘bad’? Difficult to cope with, hard to understand, won’t willingly ‘obey’?

It’s easy to get caught up in kid’s behaviour; teaching the kinds of behaviours we expect, setting boundaries, being consistent, not accepting ‘inappropriate’ behaviours.
Of course, there are some behaviours we can’t accept; some that aren’t safe, that are not doing a kid any favours in accepting, but beyond that, what does ‘bad behaviour’ really mean?
Because so often the way we behave in response doesn’t teach these kids any better. Often we just makes things worse, ending up so triggered ourselves that we behave worse than the child. Then they learn. They learn what a badly-behaved adult looks like.

I’ve thought of this topic today because it’s a regular feature with my 6 year old ATM; It’s low level stuff, classic ‘being rude’; Snatching, shouting, using inappropriate tones of voice; the kind of behaviour that isn’t intentional harmful but which is easy for me to take personally.
I readily admit to more than my fair share of parenting faux-pas, but-as long as I can stay in my own adult brain and not match his emotional immaturity-when my son does talk to me like that, in that moment I do have a choice.
I can either recognise that this kid is showing me the signs of frustration, dysregulation, maybe confusion, anger, other big feelings he ain’t managing so well, or I can let my big adult ‘I’m the grown up and I’m in charge’ ego get in the way, and tell him how unacceptable it is, blah, blah, blah.

The big picture might be that this behaviour isn’t ‘acceptable’; none of us want the children we live or work with to think they can behave & talk to people however they like… But is this the right time to teach that? Most probably not. WHY?
Because, while he’s not in emotional hijack; not yet flipped into ‘fight/flight’ mode; he certainly isn’t calm, rational & regulated either.

All behaviour is a form of communication and the below traffic light analogy is a really simple but profound tool for reminding us what’s going on beneath the surface when a child is telling us-in the only way they can, in that moment; that they’re struggling.
Very rarely does a child go from ‘green’ to ‘red’ immediately; There’s usually an ‘amber’ signal to tell us they’re in that middle ground. That’s our opportunity to diffuse the situation. but it’s all too easy to mirror their frustration & behaviour back at them; AKA the quickest way to fast-forward them (and you!) into ‘red light’ territory.

The vast majority of us are not able to be peaceful, gentle & unconditional ALL the time, but our children can teach us a lot about what’s going on for them, if we are able to tune in and receive their message. We can catch the ‘amber warning’ before they become red-lights; which are a whole lot more challenging to deal with.

Here are 3 ‘amber behaviours’ to watch out for. When you see, hear or sense them, slow down-or stop- so you can help co-regulate with the child and get them ‘back on green’;

1) ‘Sensation seeking’
This often comes in the form of pushing, running, wrestling, fighting etc. Our instinct is often to stop this kind of ‘aggressive’ or unsafe behaviour, or issue ‘consequences’; send them to time-out, withdraw playtime, send them to their room etc.
These kids are actually just showing us what they need; kinaesthetic & proprieceptive sensory feedback… So if we prevent them from getting those needs met, guess what? The need- and the ‘bad behaviour’-doesn’t go away…. So how do you help a child meet their sensory needs without the aggression? Find out in next week’s post.

2) Being ‘rude’, shouting, snapping, snatching etc.

This is usually a sign that intense frustration is at work. It’s only a whisker away from anger so, as hard at it is-and it is, because so many of us are triggered by these behaviours-try not to meet fire with fire. Your child may very well not even be aware of their big feelings, let alone how to manage them.
This is where tiny adjustments in language are mighty; “Why are you angry? You don’t need to be upset” comes from a well intended place but invites defensiveness.
“You seem to be feeling angry, maybe something is upsetting you? I’d like to help if I can, let me know if you can think of a way” is so much more inviting.
How else can you talk to your kids in ways that invite connection and help them regulate their emotions better? More in next week’s post.

3) Withdrawal & refusal to participate
This can be infuriating & embarrassing, seen as children often ‘choose’ social situations to refuse to speak, join in, make a decision etc.
We can be truly triggered by these ‘attention seeking’ behaviours. But it does everyone a favour to ditch that term. ‘Attention seeking’ is attention needing. ‘Attention seeking’ is connection needing. A withdrawn child is still communicating a need, even if that need is not as evident or problematic as overt anger.

However, it’s also fertile ground for being drawn into the age-old power struggle, and that is what we much avoid at all costs! Can you connect with a kid who won’t talk, join in etc? Can you avoid the power-struggle without being triggered yourself?

YES! It may not involve the usual lines of open communication, but you can. In fact I would argue that you must.

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