When we are confronted with a situation where our child is behaving in a way that is not acceptable to us, let’s go a little deeper and not just scratch the surface.
Ever so often a parent sets up time for their child’s counselling because the child is acting out and misbehaving – throwing temper tantrums; being rude; addicted to the mobile (or to technology); not studying; being distracted; not getting the marks; not interacting with peers; not ‘listening’; the list can go on. Parents want the child counselled so that the behavior can be ‘fixed’.
My view is that behavior cannot be ‘fixed’ unless we understand the feelings and thoughts that result in it. The linkages between thoughts, feelings and behavior have been well researched and form the foundation of what is popularly called cognitive behavioral therapy and is a well-established mode of therapy for various mental health conditions. While I am not going to go into the details of CBT as it is popularly called, I do want to take a minute to illustrate the linkage because understanding it can enable us to look at our children’s issues (and our own) very differently.
Let’s take the example of a child going into a new school and being faced with a situation where he needs to interact and mingle with a whole new set of peers. If this child
thinks he is not good enough and others are better than him; he questions himself on whether he is 'good enough for that group'; then he
feels unsure, unconfident, insecure and hesitant, which makes him
behaves meekly and mildly, when he walks up to peer-groups very hesitantly and in an unsure, tentative voice pleads to be allowed to join in the group. The typical response he will get from the group in such a situation will be one of rejection.
As adults in the life of the child, we typically see the meek and mild behavior and his social isolation and tell him to behave more confidently and make more friends. We do not focus on his underlying feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence due to his low self-esteem and belief that he is not good enough. In the counselling room what presents itself is often behavior which the adults want ‘fixed’. “Tell him how to make more friends” one parent may say. Or, “tell him how to be more confident”. What needs to be addressed though, are the unhelpful, dysfunctional and often irrational beliefs that result in the feelings and consequent behaviors.
Let’s look at the same scenario, but in this case the child
thinks he is good enough and as good as the others; instead of doubting himself, he questions himself on whether the others are “good enough to be his friends”; then he
feels confident and secure, which makes him
behave confidently, when he walks up to the peer-group and in a clear confident voice introduces himself and asks to join the group. The typical response he will get from the group in such a situation will be one of friendliness and acceptance.
The situation in both cases is the same. The difference is the beliefs the child has about himself and his surroundings, which in turn, evoke feelings of confidence or uncertainty and result in very different behaviors.
So whenever we are confronted with a situation where our child is behaving in a way that is not acceptable to us, let’s go a little deeper and not just scratch the surface. Let’s try and uncover what the child is feeling, and understand the child’s thoughts and beliefs that are resulting in those feelings. But during this process of digging deeper, we need to ensure that we are able to remain non-judgmental and not end up being defensive.
Sometimes in this process of discovery we may realize that the child has ended up with some beliefs that we, as parents, did not intend for him to have. You wanted your child to be a confident high-achiever. How did he end up with such a lack of confidence? And that may then result in your having to answer some tough questions for yourself on what you did wrong or said wrong. And that may not always be a pleasant exercise for you.
The important thing is also to be non-judgmental, and accepting, not only of your child, but also of yourself. You have to believe in your ability to be a ‘good enough’ parent. You have to believe in yourself, only then will your child end up believing in himself. Remember, you are not perfect and you don’t need to be. You are good enough. And your child is not perfect, and does not need to be. Your child is good enough.
So if your child is throwing temper tantrums, don’t just try to stop the angry behavior. Try to understand the source of the angry feelings and address those. If your child is engaging in attention-seeking behavior, don’t just dismiss the behavior because you don’t want to give in to the demand for attention. Try and understand why the child needs to resort to the attention-seeking behavior to get the attention he probably rightfully deserves. If your child is addicted to technology, don’t just threaten to take away the mobile or other gadget, but try and understand what need is being fulfilled by the addiction that is not being met otherwise. What is the thought or belief that makes the child prefer the virtual world to the real world? If the child is constantly distracted and unable to focus, try and understand what thoughts (fears, anxieties, and hopes) are filling up his mind-space and give him an opportunity to air them.
This may seem hard, and beyond you. But in reality it is not. It just requires you to ‘listen’ with your hearts and understand and accept yourself and your children. This may require you to reskill yourself, and respond differently from what you are used to, but it is eminently doable. The rewards are definitely worth it – for yourself, for your children, and for your relationship with them.
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.