Cue hard truth. Ready? You know your child’s challenging/annoying/infuriating behaviour that really gets you going? That difficult behaviour you just aren't sure what to do with? You might even feel confused by it. Or, you might get completely triggered and almost explode over it. That behaviour is serving a very important purpose. There is valuable information embedded in these ‘misbehaviours’.
Here it is. The truth I mentioned: The way that you feel when a child is behaving in a challenging way is how that child feels.
If you feel angry, irate, irritated, out of control, frustrated, scared, overwhelmed, disconnected, sad, disrespected, or (insert any emotion here) in response to something your child is doing: that is how your child feels.
Yup. I know. Seems a little crazy. Is totally true.
You drew a boundary and told Johnny that he couldn’t have candy before dinner. Makes sense, right? Johnny becomes irate and begins screaming and yelling mean words while crying. He kicks you. He kicks the dog. You put him in his room for a time-out and he continues screaming and yelling and crying and begins to throw things around the room while he yells that he “HATES YOU” and “YOU ARE THE WORST MOM EVER”. If I was the Mom in this moment (And I just might have been, once upon at time, or several times) I would feel: frustrated for sure, confused because it didn’t really make sense, like I was not in control of things that were happening that did not feel good to me, and possibly like I couldn’t take much more or I was going to completely blow my lid. Sound familiar?
This is clear information about what little Johnny is feeling in his day to day life. There is something in Johnny’s world or within his relationships that leaves him feeling confused, frustrated, not in control, and angry. He just can’t tell you with his words so he will show you with his behaviour by setting you up in circumstances that create for you, whatever it is he is experiencing. It’s genius, really.
Children do not have the ability to articulate the complexity of their emotions or the discomfort they feel inside their body as it responds to life’s stress. A seven year old cannot say “When I go through big changes in my life I feel out of control, and scared, and that shows up as anger and tantrums”. What a seven year old can do is behave in a way that makes their parent feel out of control, scared, and angry. (And, that parent, might just have an adult tantrum when they can’t control their child’s behaviour). The set-up is not a choice for the child. They don’t think “I feel angry so I am going to refuse to brush my teeth so my Dad feels angry and knows how I feel”. It is an unconscious act of communication, from nervous system to nervous system, that bypasses the thinking, logical brain.
When you are confused by a behaviour, when it feels out of control, or like it just won’t stop: sit down and reflect. What do you authentically feel in that moment? What emotions arise for you when your child behaves in that way? What are you being set up to feel?
When a child feels strong, difficult emotions, they behave in a way that sets their adults up to feel what they feel. This is the set-up. If the adult does not respond in the way that child needs, the child’s behaviour will escalate. The intensity of the behaviour will increase. If the set-up is still not picked up on, it will escalate again. The child is doing everything in their creative power to get essential information across to the important people in their life. They really want you to know how they feel. They really want some support and guidance. They just can’t explain it to you. The set-up is a request for help to navigate something that feels like too much to handle alone.
So, what can you do so the child knows that you understand? Name it. Yup. Say what you feel out loud, name emotions and name body sensations. “I feel really angry inside my body.” “My tummy feels weird and tight and my heart is beating fast”. “I feel like what I say is not important”. “It’s so frustrating when I want something to happen and it is not happening”. “My head feels like it might explode”. “I feel tightness in my chest and sadness when I hear words that hurt my feelings”. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even the exact right words, it just has to be true to what you are feeling. When you say out loud what emotions or body sensations are happening for you two things happen. First, you become congruent (more on that in an upcoming post) which creates a feeling of trust and safety for the child. Second, the child feels seen. They feel like you get it. Like you know what it feels like to be them and what it feels like inside their body. You are putting words to the big, sometimes overwhelming, feelings they have that they are unable to find words for.
The next step in addressing the set-up is to regulate your nervous system and allow the emotions to move through you which is another conversation and requires it’s own explanation. ( Stay tuned :). For now, know this, taking a big, deep breath is always a good option. No matter what is going on. Take a breath.
The set-up is a gift. An offering. A conversation without words. Do you ever feel disconnected from someone, like they won’t let you in? Or, like you keep telling your child something but they disregard your words and do what they want? It’s all communication. They might feel ignored or disconnected from you, or even that when they talk no one is listening. The set-up is communication that requires that you pick up a mirror, tune into your Self, your body, and your own emotions, and sometimes (actually usually) realize that what you are doing as a parent is creating an emotional response in your child that they are then reflecting back to you. Fully responding to the set-up requires being honest with our selves and likely working to change something in our lives that is contributing to the behaviour in our child that is difficult to tolerate. To create change for the child, and for the family, it requires honesty, taking responsibility, and showing up authentically. It often requires personal accountability.
It is definitely more complicated than a time-out or a reinforcing sticker chart. If time-outs, sticker charts and behaviour modification and consequences worked …. wouldn't they be working by now? Behaviour is just not that simple. Giving a child a dollar to not fight with their brother might work for a minute but the underlying reason for frustration, jealousy, or anger still exists beyond that dollar so the motivation will wear off. The feelings are too big to manage with the logical thinking brain or the brain’s motivation centre that really wants that dollar.
I learned all about the set-up from my teacher, Lisa Dion, through the Play Therapy Institute of Colorado. It’s part of the play therapy style I use, Synergetic Play Therapy. I have a presentation I offer periodically to share this and more nervous system information as it pertains to parenting. Please contact me if you want to hang out and talk about it. I’d love to meet you.
Also, side note: this is true in all relationships. Adults set-up adults all the time. Happy reconsidering all interactions from this point on ;) Also, sorry about that.