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Picture this: it's been a long day, and all you want are your pajamas, Netflix, and to cuddle on the couch with your kids.
Instead, you see your son dumping his toys all over the floor.
As soon as you ask him if he's done his reading, he gets upset- raising his voice, getting defensive, and being disrespectful as he tells you he doesn't care about his reading.
This is a moment of decision for both of you. It can lead to a connecting moment between the two of you, or it can be the start of an explosive evening, full of stand-offs, yelling, and at least two people feeling angry (if not the entire house).
Now, before we go any further, I want to say that if you have gone the route where things turn to yelling, there is no judgement here.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, others choose to react in different ways, taking things to the nasty, ugly, sticky place of power struggles and chaos. Sometimes we are just tired and before we know it, we snap and things take an entirely different course than we would have liked.
So no beating yourself up. Life happens to all of us.
But because you're here reading this, I know that you would like for that moment where you and your son are both tired to turn into one of those Hallmark Channel connecting moments. No screaming or throwing things. He picks up his toys. He does his reading. You both put on pajamas and watch that movie you've been talking about for three days.
The Easiest Emotions to Spot
In my work as a family therapist, I am constantly looking for emotions. If you want to predict (or change) behavior, being able to identify emotions is crucial.
Despite how many emojis there are on my phone, there are seriously only a handful of emotions that we tend to experience on the regular: pain, fear, sadness, and discouragement are one cluster; excitement, longing, anticipation, eagerness, nervousness, and worry are another cluster; and happiness, laughter, love, and joy are another example of am emotion cluster.
Note: These are not official clusters of emotion, just some groupings that I see a lot to help you learn to spot emotions in your family.
When we are tired ourselves, it's often hard to spot the emotions in others. The easiest emotions for anyone to display, and for us to pick up on, is anything related to anger and frustration. It's biologically wired in us to pick up on emotions, especially those that signal some kind of danger.
So when your son is pushing those toys around and avoiding doing his reading on a day when you are exhausted, it's easy for you to pick up on his defiance and for him to pick up on your frustration.
Neither of you immediately registers that you're both feeling a bit discouraged and tired.
He's avoiding his reading. Why? Is the book not interesting? Is he struggling with certain words? Did he have a bad day and he just needs to let off some steam with his toys first? Did someone pick on him at school?
You're seeing the evening you hoped for go right out the window. Instead of heading straight for the microwave, the pajama drawer, and the couch, you now have to wrangle up toys and drag him towards a book for 20 minutes.
Discouragement abounds, and yet no one is truly aware of it.
Sidenote: if there is one thing that would save people from ever having to make an appointment to come see me in my office, it would be the ability to notice an emotion in someone else and to know how to talk about it together. Workplaces would be peaceful, couples would be sappy, and children would have fewer meltdowns.
Misbehavior Can Be a Code for Emotion
In the words of teacher and psychiatrist Rudolph Dreikurs, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.”
I'm going to let that sink in for a minute…
discouraged kids misbehave
It can be an entirely new way to think of things, and it may not sit well with you reading through this right now. Let me see if I can help.
If I changed this example and it was you slamming dishes around in the kitchen, clearly you would know that you were upset. Mad probably. What makes you mad? Fear? Anger? Frustration? Disappointment? Discouragement?
Ah, emotions influence behaviors…
If I slowed things down and pulled out what you were feeling on the inside, I would know that once again, your husband didn't turn on the dishwasher. You had a packed day, and now you are tired, everyone is hungry, and before you can start cooking dinner, you have to clean some dishes.
Inside, you're seething “He never hears me when I ask for help. Why does he take me for granted?”
That thought right there-the tears you are trying to hold back because you feel like he takes you for granted- that's your discouragement. That's painful to think that someone you love just doesn't get you. It hurts. It makes you angry. It's a lot of stuff, all rolled up into how you are handling the dirty dishes.
If your husband were to come in right now and snap at you for making so much noise, things would explode.
But if he were to quietly start helping you load the dishwasher and he quietly said, “I'm so sorry I forgot to do this. I got called in early today and I was scrambling at the last minute to get there because they were short-staffed. Let me help. I'm so sorry,” that would completely change the evening.
Not only was he helping, not only was he was telling you what happened and giving you information you didn't know before, not only was he doing it calmly, not only did he remember not to try to start hugging and kissing on you when you were mad- but he picked up on you: your feelings, your needs, and your pain.
Even though your husband may forget to do the things that you ask him every other time, he understood and he touched that pain you were experiencing in a soft and connecting way. If he had not understood that you were feeling discouraged, his response would have lit a match and exploded the evening.
How to Spot a Discouraged Child
So back to your son and the toys all over the floor.
He's acting out. He's made a mess. He's not talking respectfully. He didn't follow the rule to do your assignments for school before taking out the toys.
At this point, we don't know what's going on inside.
We do know that he's breaking rules and there are consequences.
We also know that our reaction can either teach him something (discipline actually means “to teach” and not “to punish”) and increase the chances of him making better choices in the future, or it can ruin the relaxing evening that both of you clearly need.
Bad behaviors let you know there's discouragement somewhere.
Depending on a child's age, their language skills, and what they have been taught about handling emotions and difficult situations, will determine how they respond to something that is upsetting them.
We know that an infant is going to cry when they are bothered by something.
We know that a two-year old is going to say “no” a lot. We know that when most of us are mad, upset, frustrated, discouraged, or whatever, there is something about that emotion that comes out on the outside in some way.
For a child, who may not know how to put what they are feeling into words, it's easy to see why they may misbehave. They simply don't have all of the words, all of the self-control, and all of the experience to handle it any differently. That is, until we teach them. 🙂
How to Handle Your Discouraged Child
There are two words that I like to keep in mind when handling any tough situation: firm and kind.
Being firm shows respect for you.
Being kind shows respect to your child.
I want you to memorize these two words. They work for every conflict, even if the child involved is 70!
In the example with your son and his toys all over the floor, you could slowly stop walking towards your bedroom and sit down on the couch near your son (or even sit on the floor for the gold star).
This not only shows kindness by pausing what you were doing to take time for him, but the sitting down lets him know this doesn't need to be rushed. When we feel pressure, it can quickly escalate emotions. Doing it slowly can help you to have an extra second to think, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that both of you are tired and discouraged.
If your son is still yelling and shoving toys, give a “stop” instruction, worded carefully. Though you're telling him to stop, try to avoid words like “don't” and make sure to tell him what you need him to do.
Instead of saying, “Don't talk back to me like that. You know better!” try saying:
“Put your hands in your lap and tell me that again in a quieter voice so I can understand you.”
You should say it in a firm tone to show respect for yourself. But the words you choose shows kindness towards your son because it's not worded to put him on the defensive. Saying, “Don't do ___________” often puts others on the defensive. It can escalate a situation. Adding something like “you know better” in a bitter tone just adds sprinkles on top of that mood and causes an explosion.
This is helping everyone to be successful. (You really need that Netflix marathon tonight, remember?)
Stop instructions should be given once. If they are not followed, then apply a consequence- quiet time, time out, etc.
Once your son has stopped yelling and talking disrespectfully, you can ask him to tell you more about his day and what happened.
“You always do your reading. This isn't like you to just start yelling and not following the rules. What happened today?”
Again, this kindness shows respect for your son, and invites him to open up and talk, instead of clamming up and getting defensive.
Once he's shared more, you can reflect on what you heard, connect to his discouragement, and help come up with a plan for the next steps. This can include consequences for breaking the rules.
“Wow, buddy. You did have a hard day. I can see why you wanted to do something fun instead of trying to read part of a book that you don't really like. I'm glad you told me about that. You know I'm here for you and you can tell me about your bad days. I wish you had told me earlier that you needed us to change the routine before all of this happened. Can you do that next time?”
“Good! That sounds like a plan. Right now, Mommy needs you to clean these toys up. I'm going to change clothes and go cook. While I'm in the kitchen, I need you to sit at the table and do your reading. But before we do that, what did you learn about how to handle your feelings?”
There are lots of ways to handle this, but the big things are to remember to be firm and kind to show respect for both of you. That builds his trust in you. You care about him. You do what you say. He can count on you to follow-through (even if it is to enforce consequences).
It also helps both of you to feel connected. It increases the likelihood that the next time, things will go differently. It lessens the likelihood of more bad behaviors happening because both of you are locked into a battle of the wills and both of you have to win.
You can impose a consequence for breaking any rules, but we'll talk more about natural consequences in another post. 🙂
Remembering that misbehavior is a sign of a discouraged child is not meant to let your child get away with things. It's meant to help you quickly see exactly what the problem is that they are struggling with, so you know where to put your attention.
It also helps to keep the situation from getting worse. And more importantly, it allows both of you to be able to watch that movie. Afterall, those moments of feeling understood deepen your bond and make the bad day finally go away.