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When a child behaves badly: Lessons from a therapeutic practice

Your children will make poor decisions. They will do the wrong things and say the wrong things. They will probably lie, they will probably cheat, they may even steal at some point. When this happens, parents, this is what you do. Remember who your child truly is.

I often coach parents to practice doing nothing when their child acts poorly. When I say do nothing, many parents complain that doing nothing is tantamount to letting the child “get away with it”. They assume that their reaction is primarily about the child. This is a misinterpretation of the meaning of the word reaction. A reaction is about the reactor and not about the actor. So when I say do nothing, I am attempting to support the parent rather than the child. Doing nothing immediately following poor behavior, allows the parent to choose the best response. This does not preclude a parent from acting to keep a child safe.

To paraphrase the notable psychologist Victor Frankl, between stimulus and response there is a a space and in that space lies your freedom. Your primary reaction is not about the child. It is about you, the parent. It communicates what you have chosen to make of the situation. Do you see it as affecting your identity (and by extension, the child’s identity) or as just a situation in the moment? Are you more interested in letting the child know how they have hurt you (which may warrant treating them equally badly), or would you rather help them repair the damage?

When your child engages in unacceptable behavior, even when that behavior violates your own core values, you must remember that a behavior does not define your child’s identity. Not even if that behavior is repeated. This begins with your own ability to see your child as the total person they are, beyond what they do or even think. It is your ability to represent that total child in your own mind as you parent, that will facilitate better actions as they make decisions in the long run.

When a child has behaved poorly, it is never more important to say what you actually mean. Not what you feel or think or even believe. Your reaction may be about you but once you begin to relay that reaction to the child, you are making it about them. This is what they will receive.

The art of therapy is often called “the talking cure”. This implies that therapist hope to heal by talking, and this is partially true. Therapists also recognize that the cure can lie in how things are said more than what is said. Much of the talking is aimed at helping you reveal more of your self to you. A therapist does not simply say what they are thinking, no matter how innocent. They have to metabolize those thoughts before delivering them so that they are communicating what they truly mean in the most helpful way. This is a skill that can serve parents well. You may have all kinds of thoughts and feelings about stealing and lying behaviors but these may not be helpful to communicate if they fail to convey what you truly mean about the child.

For instance, I believe that it is wrong to steal. This may be because I believe in fairness and transparency, so that I see stealing as an unfair and hurtful way to treat people. I may even want my child to learn and come to believe the same thing. Tempting as it is, in the moment when my child has just been caught stealing, it will not be helpful (or even successful) for me to try and teach them my beliefs. Instead, as I choose what reaction to convey, I must first recognize the fundamental truth that my child’s identity is not “thief” and also, that my identity is not “mother of thief". Then if I decide that I want them to know that they have a better choice of how to behave in the future, I must convey that. If I want them to know that poor decisions like this can and should be repaired, I must convey that. If I decide that there must be a related consequence to help them learn from the experience, I must convey that.

Note that none of these decisions have to do with either the child’s or my identity. I do not need to “treat the child like a thief” as many parents say, or communicate in a way that tells the child that “thief" is now a part of who they are. I can find future opportunities to teach them about my philosophies or beliefs but what I need to convey in this moment is a simple age-appropriate resolution that maintains focus on the choice of behavior.

In taking the time to use the space between behavior and response (and do take a few minutes to attend to your own mind here), you can acknowledge and remove all your very personal feelings from the equation. This enables you to respond to the situation as an event in the moment rather than a source of your or your child’s identity. Beware of using popular phrases like, “I know you can do better”. Most of the time, this phrase is a reaction to their not having done better. We use it to convey disbelief and not belief. It also does not follow logically because the deed has already been done and, given the information they relied on at the time, they did not do better. What you really mean and should communicate is that they will do better. Not only does this give us the space to explain or show them how to do better next time but it also tells the child that who they are (the person who makes good choices) is not altered by this single or repeated event.

Once the wrong deed has been done, you are now parenting the child for the next opportunity for growth and not the past one. Many parents become fixated on past behavior so much that it colors their view of their child’s true self. In fact, it is usually our parenting default to remind the child of past transgressions and talk about their past failures as though that is all we see in them. This may stem from our own deeply hurt feelings and violated beliefs. Those feelings do need to be addressed but not by the child . They need to be addressed for our own personal growth because our hurt feelings are about our own related experiences and not just the child’s behavior.

A parent’s words have the power to shape a child’s reality in ways that nobody else’s can. You are your child’s first emotional experience. Because of this, the words that come from you resonate as the truest and can always find a home in your child. Parents must therefore be mindful when they choose how to communicate about who a child is, distinguishing this from what they have done. When a parent takes their parenting activities like a therapist takes their work, the parent-child relationship becomes appropriately focused on personal and interpersonal growth.

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