I can’t say how many times I’ve heard frustrated caregivers interpreting kids behavior, “I know they can control themselves...they just don't want to!”. Sometimes when we are in the throes of challenging behavior, it’s easy to get caught up in this perspective--after all, it can absolutely feel like the child should be able to better control themselves.
But remaining in "shoulds" only leaves us feeling (and acting) angry. This explanation isn’t helpful and can keep us stuck in a “negative feedback loop” where kids misbehave, grown ups become angry, kids act out more, grown ups get angrier, and on and on. Alternatively, kids are anxious, grown ups become anxious, kids become more anxious, and so it goes.
Instead of getting caught up in such a spiral, Psychologist Ross Greene urges parents and caregivers to remember that “Kids do well if they can”.
The truth is, kids want to do well. Kids want to feel successful, to gain confidence as they master developmentally appropriate tasks. Kids also want the approval of their caregivers. Even as babies, they are learning what to do by watching their grown ups' reactions. When a caregiver celebrates a successful trip to the potty, the young child learns that using the potty is positive, the pleasure of feeling approval is greater than the anxiety of doing something new. And so they do it again until it becomes a new skill. This attachment relationship formed between a child and their primary caregivers also extends to other grown ups in authority, such as teachers. That’s why research has shown that the most important variable in student learning is the relationship with their teacher.
Kids Do Well If They Can: Why It Matters
If you are able to remember that children do well if they can, it is easier to stay grounded when your child isn't "doing well". When you can remain calm and centered, you are better able to try to understand and to respond to your kids more effectively. When your child isn't doing well socially, academically or behaviorally, it is a sign that there is something in their way--this is the central idea behind Kids Do Well If They Can. Instead of staying with unhelpful thoughts that are blaming and cause anxiety, frustration and anger, replace them with "Kids Do Well If they Can". This simple truth can help you to center, to avoid an unhealthy negative feedback loop and instead allows you the emotional space to put your detective hat on and start asking questions!
Are they getting enough sleep?
Research has found that the single most important factor in kids behavior is sleep. When kids don’t get enough, they are at a much higher risk of having emotional and/or behavioral problems.
Are they getting enough of your positive attention?
When kids aren't getting enough or their caregivers' attention, they can act out--negative attention is better than none at all. Do an experiment: Make it a point to give your kids 10 minutes a day of playtime. Not homework support, not driving to sports--playtime. Let the kids choose how they want to spend their 10 minutes--but it must be something you can do together (ie. no video games while someone watches). Do this for 2 weeks. Has the behavior changed?
Does your child have learning differences? This is a big one when kids are struggling at school. Often children can appear to do well academically (especially elementary school kids) but will experience Anxiety, Frustration and/or a negative sense of themselves. Kids can avoid school or homework, show significant anxiety and even interfere with friendships. If your child shows behaviors around school, please consider having them evaluated for learning differences.
Could your child have biological or neurological challenges?
This is another big one. Maybe your child has had an anxious temperament from birth. Perhaps your child has ADD or ADHD. Does your child experience sensory-related discomfort? Could they be on the Autism/Aspergers spectrum? These neuro-biological differences can all interfere with kids' ability to thrive at home, school, and with friends. A pediatric Neurologist can help you tease out what hurdles your child may be facing, and help you to effectively accommodate and/or remove them.
Is there any correlation between your child’s diet and behavior?
Many parents believe that things like sugar, caffeine, and red dyes can play a huge role in behavior. There has also been some controversy over Miralax and effects on behavior. Explore whether your child might be affects by something in their diet.
Has your child experienced any kind of life change, loss or trauma?
If there is anything new in your child’s life. A move, a new sibling, a new school, these changes can leave kids feeling unstable. Because kids thrive on routine and predictability, any life changes can be stressful for them and impact their emotions and behavior. Of course, a loss such as a death or a divorce can have similar effects on a child. If a child has experienced trauma, they may be struggling to understand what happened and may continue to feel unsafe, which also could cause significant stress. While we can protect our kids, we can’t really prevent these kinds of experiences from happening. But what we can do is make sure our kids have the support they need to get through them.
So if your child seems to be struggling right now, put on your detective hat and start investigating! The greatest gift that you can give your child is to be the person that never gives up on them, that gives your child the benefit of the doubt, to keep the inherent “goodness” that exists in all kids close, to remember that kids do well if they can, to protect your relationship above all else—even and especially by getting help for your child’s own behaviors.
Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help you and your child make sense of your experience, identify strategies to support your investigation, learn new coping skills, and most importantly, strengthen and protect your relationship.
Call today to get started! 856-281-1664!