Today’s inspiration comes from a course I’ve been preparing called ‘The Brain Behind The Behaviour’.
I’m not talking about classic ‘bad’ behaviour, the kind that’s the work of a triggered fight/flight response or an ‘emotional hijack’ though.
Some of our children’s behaviours, while not desirable, are easy to make sense of; lying to keep themselves out of trouble or stealing something because they really want it, for example.
But what about those more confusing and difficult to understand behaviours?
The kind that don’t make sense, those can’t just be blamed on ‘poor self-control’; those which show an element of awareness, even deceit?
I get asked a lot about why children do what they know they shouldn’t, or don’t do what they know they should.
It can be irritating at best, and infuriating; for example when older children refuse to study for looming exams, or when younger children draw on walls.
But when a child tells stories that seem designed to cause harm, or lies when it’s evident they’ll be caught out, or steals just for the hell of it, it can send us well beyond annoyance. It can be unsettling, disturbing even.
And unfortunately, there is no single answer; my 9 year old nephew etched ‘Hello’ through the paint work across my table top last year with a pair of scissors. He couldn’t explain why he did it, and I can’t either.
It’s an unfortunate fact that for some children who exhibit those more extreme behaviours, there may be pathological rooted and need clinical intervention in time.
But for most of them, the behaviours that are difficult to make sense of still fall under the umbrella of ‘normal development’, or at best-as has been amplified for the last 2 years- ‘a normal response to an abnormal situation’.
The Staircase In The Brain
I often refer to Dan Seigal’s ‘Upstairs/downstairs’ brain mode; the upstairs brain being the home of logic, rational thinking, and downstairs being the home of our most primitive survival instincts; a blunt instrument but it works.
It’s an even more useful analogy when we think about the staircase that connects them.
I’m not that saying we should be permissive or passive about these behaviours, but to manage their own behaviours or impulses; to anticipate the consequences of them and direct their behaviours appropriately; children firstly need a well-developed upstairs brain.
That’s a long game.
But what if they already have a well-developed brain?! They still might not be able to access it!
Uncomfortable levels of prevent that from happening so, as justified as our own feelings may be, adding to their stress with anger, threats and sanctions don;t tend to help in the long-term.
Behaviour Is Communication
Yes, compassion and empathy can be hard to find when you can’t just sweep it under the ‘emotional hijack’ carpet, when you’re dealing with an element of intent or pre-meditation.
But one of many mantras I always share, for the sake of ourselves as well as the children we live and work with, is ‘All behaviour is a form of communication’.
Most likely, their behaviour isn’t a conscious attempt on the child part to convey a coded message, but there’s always something there for us to work with.
Albeit perhaps inarticulately, they’re still trying to get their needs met. So be curious, not furious, as they say, and ask yourself ‘What is this behaviour trying to tell me?’
The chances are, these ‘challenging’ behaviours are a sign that the child is running up and down that staircase too, stuck between fight/flight and logic, and thus, while not completely beyond self-control, is also not thinking clearly, anticipating consequences or being empathetic.
What is the need your child is expressing?
Attention? ‘Attention seeking’ is perfectly normal, humans are hard-wired from birth to need attention. Meet the need. Then teach more appropriate ways of getting the attention they need!
Power and control? The neurodevelopmental role of childhood is to become more autonomous and influential. It’s natural and healthy. What are the healthier ways you could help your child to experience that?
Safety? Your child may be perfectly safe, but for them to assess the situation and recognise that, they need to be in their ‘upstairs brain’.
Helping them feel safe; deeply and emotionally; will help them reach that part of their brain.
Acceptance and belonging?
Humans evolved to belong to a tribe, and so isolation is a perceived threat, as far as the survival brain is concerned.
Fear of rejection runs deep; that’s why babies cry as soon as they’re born; their survival brain is hard-wired to know then that the only way to get their needs met is through the connection of a care-giver.
So while, children do need to learn consequences, perceived exclusion isn’t how they learn.
The impact of red traffic lights and rainclouds plastered on many classroom walls are worthy of another blog post altogether, but they’re not tools to ‘learn better behaviours’.
Some will disagree, but to me they are ways of using fear and shame to control children.
Instead of aspiring to managing our kids’ behaviour for them, shouldn’t the ultimate goal here be to raise self-aware children with the skills to manage themselves?