Kids’ behave in a Sparky or a Shady way to meet their needs. These needs include; keeping their body alive, safety & security, love & belonging, self-worth & importance and purpose (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).
Another thing about kids’ behaviour is that most of the time (90 – 95%) it happens automatically on ‘autopilot’, which means kids don’t consciously choose how to behave, they just behave in ways that have worked for them in the past. For instance, a 10-year-old girl (let’s call her Jody) does not consciously think, “Okay, mum is sitting on the lounge with her boyfriend, she loves him more than she loves me so I am going to sit in between them and play with mum’s hair so I can have all her attention.” A Shady thought process like this does happen subconsciously in Jody’s mind – but she is NOT aware of it, all she knows is that she wants to sit next to mum, so she does!
Let’s see what happens next…
Mum lets Jody squeeze in between her and her boyfriend. Interestingly, mum’s response also happens subconsciously, maybe mum is thinking, “Poor Jody, I don’t give her enough attention, her dad is unreliable and always disappoints her, I can’t let her down.”
After a few minutes Jody’s behaviour becomes annoying and when she is asked to stop playing with her mother’s hair and to, “move over a little bit please,” Jody gets up, points her finger at the boyfriend and yells at her mum, “You don’t have time for me like you used to before he moved in!” Then stomps off to her bedroom.
Mum follows Jody yelling, “That’s not true, you and I went shopping for two hours yesterday, I always make time for you. I’m allowed to have some time with Brad too.”
Jody yells back at her mum through the door, “Yeah, that’s because you love him more than you love me. I want to live with Dad, why can’t I live with my Dad?”
“Your Dad can’t look after you all the time, he has to work early and can’t be there for you in the mornings. I want you to live here with me, I love you, you belong here. I don’t love Brad more than you, I love you both in different ways.” Mum replies.
Tricky situation? Let’s break it down and think about what needs Jody is trying to meet?
Safety & security, love & belonging and importance perhaps? Jody sounds like a normal 10-year-old human being to me!
So why has Jody chosen to meet her needs in a Shady way and not a Sparky way? Great question! The answer is…
Jody believes Shady things about herself and her life including, “I’m not safe and secure”, “I’m not loved”, “I don’t belong” and “I’m not important” which means her ‘autopilot’ is set to Shady.
When mum chases after Jody reassuring her that she is loved, Jody might be thinking something like this in her subconscious, “Mum must love me because she is giving me attention and she is following me and she has left her boyfriend on the lounge and she says I belong with her. When I behave like this I am safe, secure, loved, I belong and I am important!”
Why would Jody change her Shady behaviour when it is working for her?
Okay, so obviously mum doesn’t like Jody’s behaviour so what can she do about it?
Mum can change her behaviour!
Let’s see what that looks like…
When Jody comes to sit in between Mum and Brad, instead of moving over mum could say, “Jody, Brad and I want to sit together. Could you sit here on the other side of me please?”
If Jody’s sits there for a while but then her behaviour becomes annoying (to get attention), mum might say, “Jody, I asked you stop and you haven’t, could you sit on the other lounge please?” If Jody throws a tantrum at this point about not being loved mum could say, “Jody, I think you have some hurt inside you. How about we spend some time tomorrow finding out what’s going on?”
This change in mum’s behaviour (not giving into Jody and a suggestion that she can help her tomorrow – not now) means Jody’s needs are not being met (mum didn’t get up, follow her, reassure her or give her any negative attention at all). Jody’s subconscious could now be thinking, “Oh shit, that didn’t work, I need mum to come after me to prove she loves me, I need her to argue with me so I know I am important, I will have to up the ante!”
If mum continues to respond to Jody in a calm and consistent way, then Jody’s behaviour will eventually change because it no longer meets her needs. It is worth pointing out that Jody’s behaviour will get worse before it gets better because Jody’s has to try out new approaches to get her needs met!
Can mum be calm, loving and consistent for long enough? Yes, maybe, it depends!
It depends on whether mum’s willpower is strong enough in emotionally charged situations. In other words, every single time Jody acts in a Shady way to meet her needs, mum needs to make sure her reaction doesn’t meet Jody’s needs. For instance, when Jody throws a tantrum or is rude or disrespectful, mum can’t give her negative attention, which includes; following her, reassuring her, making her feel important, promising to make it up to her, etc. This is a BIG ask and it is what parenting books and courses are encouraging parents to do, instead of reacting automatically on autopilot we need to be conscious or ‘mindful’ of how we react.
We can do it, don’t get me wrong, but it requires conscious awareness of what is going on in the heat of an emotional moment (which is challenging) and it also requires consistency. You have to react calmly every single time (or it takes longer to work).
When I worked as a behaviour teacher I used to write ‘behaviour plans’ for families so grown-ups knew exactly how to react to a child’s behaviour so the child got a consistent message that their Shady approach wasn’t going to work anymore.
After a while I had a couple of problems with these plans…
The first was the constant will power and emotional control required by the parent and the second was that this approach doesn’t change the underlying cause of the behaviour for the child or parent. In Jody’s case the cause of her Shady behaviours are her Shady beliefs; “I’m not loved”, “I don’t belong”, “I’m not secure” and “I’m not important.” The cause of mum’s reaction to Jody’s behaviours are beliefs like, “Jody isn’t coping with the break up”, “I don’t know how to help her”, “Jody is hard work.”
A more effective approach when trying to get a child to change their behaviour is for parents to change their beliefs about their child.
Beliefs are the starting point or the cause of our thoughts, words and actions.
When we change our Shady beliefs to Sparky beliefs at a subconscious level we automatically change the way we behave without having to ‘be mindful’ or consciously think about it.
It goes like this…
“Take care of your beliefs because your beliefs become your thoughts,
Take care of your thoughts because your thoughts become your words,
Take care of your words because your words become your actions.” (Gandhi)
If Jody’s mum changes her beliefs then her automatic reactions will change.
We already know mum currently believes, “Poor Jody, I don’t give her enough attention, her dad is unreliable and always disappoints her, I can’t let her down.” As well as, “Jody isn’t coping with the break up”, “I don’t know how to help her” and “Jody is hard work.”
When Jody throws a tantrum mum currently reacts automatically by giving her negative attention and reassuring her that she is loved so Jody isn’t disappointed. Or at other times mum might lose her patience, say something about not knowing how to help Jody and then frantically try to make it up to her later on.
How do you think mum’s behaviour would change if she believed, “I give Jody heaps of love and attention. Jody’s dad gives her heaps of love and attention. Jody’s dad is doing his best. Jody knows she is loved. Jody is coping well with the break up. I know how to help Jody. Jody is an easy kid to manage.”?
I’m guessing mum would react calmly and lovingly with Jody every single time she threw a tantrum (without having to concentrate on reacting appropriately)! She would also offer to help Jody change her Shady beliefs about not being safe, secure, loved and important so Jody could feel happy within herself and therefore have no need for those tantrums!
If you want to help your child change their Shady behaviour, the most effective way is to change your own beliefs about them, which will automatically change your behaviour and in turn their behaviour.
To help your child choose Sparky behaviours to meet their needs you can help them to change their Shady beliefs to Sparky beliefs so they will be on Sparky ‘autopilot’!
The process I teach to do all this is called a ‘Pit Stop’. It’s where you listen to your own Shady about all the fearful things you believe about your child (or yourself), have a cry to release the bottled-up fear inside you, then replace your unhelpful beliefs about your child (or yourself) with loving and helpful beliefs.
It works for me and others too and it might just work for you!
PS Holiday workshops are happening for all ages next school hols and after school classes on Wednesday arvos in Term 4 for 6-9 yr olds. Yell out if you are up for it! (If you have been before it is half price.)