The Root Source of Kids’ Unpleasant Behaviors

It’s easy to focus on the outward behaviors, but it’s imperative to find the root cause of them in order to properly navigate toward calmer waters. Kids are kids, but as their parents you know when you are dealing with “an issue” vs. just being “cranky.” My husband and I have had more than a few instances where we looked at each other like “WHAAAAAT was that all about?” regarding our sweet daughters. Recently our eldest had been uncharacteristically withdrawn and snappy. After a little brainstorming, we realized we were both guilty of showing her younger sister a little more attention. One day of intentional one-on-one and BAM she was back to herself. Are you dealing with an incessant, unpleasant, behavioral issue? Check out this story.

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One the many problems of living in an image-based, superficial culture is that we learn to take life at face value. And when it comes to parenting, the knee-jerk response to unpleasant behavior – screaming, hitting, whining – is to try to eradicate it as quickly as possible. We seek quick-fix solutions because it’s uncomfortable to sit with unpleasant behavior, and we’re offered very little tools as parents for how to navigate these uncomfortable times.

A couple of months ago we were struggling with incessant, loud (and I mean ear-shattering loud) screaming from our five-year old. True to my belief that behavior is symptomatic of underlying needs, my husband and I began many brainstorming sessions trying to unlock the root of the screaming: Was he getting enough protein? Enough food? Sleeping enough? Lack of stimulation? Not enough social time with friends? Not enough exercise? A normal developmental stage of being five? Yet every time we thought we had nailed it and implemented our new plan, the screaming continued. Sometimes I would look at my little one and wonder where the easy-going, smiley toddler that used to light up our house with joy ran off to. And would I ever see him again?

Then our older son attended art camp for a week. Because we homeschool, our kids usually spend every day all day long together. It’s a lot of time for anyone to spend together and we thought that, perhaps, some of Asher’s screaming was because he needed some separateness. This week confirmed it. For three hours every afternoon Asher was either with his daddy or me – running errands, going to Petco to visit the mice and snakes, heading off to the library to return books and checkout new ones. It didn’t really matter what we were doing; it was spending quality time together – holding hands, laughing, and following his rhythm instead of having to negotiate and compromise with his big brother – that mattered. While Everest had had nearly five years of his parents all to himself, Asher has had zero. So this was necessary time. And it was delicious for all of us. His need for focused attention from his parents was filled. Within a day the screaming had tapered off. By day two it had stopped completely.

It was extraordinary to watch how his joy and flexibility came back in spades. He’s a passionate child, so when he’s not happy we’ll hear about in no uncertain terms (as will the neighbors down the block), and when he’s happy his joy fills the house. He has a glorious, full-bodied laugh, and he ferrets out funny stories because he loves laughing so much. We hadn’t been hearing his laughter much during the screaming weeks, so to hear it again was like a balm to our hearts.

But the most amazing development to arise out of this experience happened on our way home from running errands when all of a sudden Asher announced, “I’m not scared of Disneyland anymore.”

My husband and I looked at each other and I turned around to ask, “What do you mean?”

“I’m not scared of getting lost anymore.”

Ever since we returned from our trip to Disneyland last March, Asher has been struggling with profound separation anxiety.

It occurred to us that perhaps it wasn’t Disneyland at all but the fact that we had spent seven days solely focused on the kids without the distractions of work and home. While I was busy filming the videos for MindBodyGreen, my husband was taking the kids for long walks down to the beach where they would play and laugh for hours in the waves, then onto the Queen Mary and the science museum the next day, and a day with friends the next. They were filled up and nourished on every level. They were happy and thriving.

And then the return to real life, and all of sudden Asher wouldn’t let us out of his sight and was screaming like a chimpanzee throughout the day.

Kids don’t know how to communicate directly about their inner needs. It’s up to us, as adults, to care enough to see beyond the symptoms – as challenging as the symptoms can be at times – and dig deeper until we unveil the root of the problem. With kids there’s always a root source. It may not be obvious and you may not even get to it, but unless you’re at least attempting to understand what’s needed you’re missing the child’s communication completely. And what ends up happening is that, by focusing on the symptom like screaming, you send the child the message that their behavior is “wrong”, which is a short internal leap to, “I’m wrong.”

On our worst days, my husband and I would focus on the screaming itself and talk to Asher about impulse control and the prefrontal cortex and breathing and oh my goodness… Did we really say all of that? Inevitably on those days or shortly after Asher would say things like, “I feel like everything I do is wrong.” Stab in our hearts, and then the repair work of acknowledging that we all have a hard time with big feelings and that they often come out as anger. When we only focus on behavior instead of searching for the symptom we miss the point entirely.