Are you worried that your child’s challenging behaviours might be signs of Autism or ADHD? Do you ever find yourself completely at a loss, with no idea how to respond to your child’s meltdowns and mood swings?
You’ve worked out that systems of punishment, time-outs and rewards are rarely, if ever, successful, but what else is there?
Responding Rather than Reacting
Best results can be achieved when we learn how to respond rather than react to the behaviours that challenge our sense of calm. Rather than “attention seeking”, as is often thought, your children are usually seeking connection. Their behaviours are probably telling you that they are feeling overwhelmed, and need your help to feel safe.
They are not bad kids, but are simply responding to some big feelings that they don’t understand, and do not yet have the words to express. Our reactions to their behaviours are often a result of our own upbringing, which creates our “shark music”. Our bodies are wired to react to a perceived threat, based on past experiences.
Please note: this is not meant to resemble anyone in particular.
Angela picks up her 5 year old daughter, Sally after school. During the day Sally’s stress levels had built up, and they discharged as they drove home. She did this by angrily yelling and kicking the back of Angela’s car seat.
Angela, now also angry, reacted by saying “If you don’t stop, you can get out and walk home”.
Sally was five, and they were seven kilometres from home.
As Angela’s thinking brain came back online, she wondered why she had said something that sounded so ridiculous. It was as though her mouth had opened before her brain had time to work out what was happening.
Understanding the Behaviour
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
The stress of her daughter’s behaviour had triggered something from Angela’s past, causing her “shark music” to surface automatically. Angela’s parents had been easily stressed people. Her mother was anxious during the pregnancy, and Angela’s dad had an explosive temper.
As a result she learnt to fear anger. Her body’s immediate response was to shut out the frightening sound of his voice. Later, as a parent, when Sally became angry or frustrated, Angela’s nervous system automatically reacted to shut herself off from the experience. As a result she found it difficult to be with her child’s angry outbursts.
These stresses from her own childhood, and her inherited family history, added to Angela’s own stressful pregnancy. As a result it is no wonder that Sally was born highly sensitive. Her nervous system, that was developing before she was born, was wired to expect a hostile world. This meant she was easily overwhelmed by stressful experiences.
Adapting to the school environment can be overwhelming for a sensitive child. While your child may appear to be coping, often the stress response is just being suppressed. During the day at school, Sally’s stress levels had built up to the point that she simply couldn’t hold it in any longer… and out it came, angrily kicking the back of her mother’s seat in the car.
Small Events Become Big Explosions
Stress reactions can happen even when your child is at home during the day. Seemingly small events can build up, and peak in the evening, when everyone is feeling a bit tired, and in the least possible space to respond calmly and coherently. These are those occasions when the most seemingly minor incidents can set off a major behavioural explosion. Feeling already stressed after a big day yourself, it is easy to react without thinking.
Remember, you are not a “bad” parent, and this is not a “bad” child. As parents, you can only ever do your best. Your nervous systems are both simply reacting to something that is perceived to be threatening. As the above scenario illustrates, the impact of parental anger can pass through generations, and our “shark music” can be easily triggered.
Changing your Story
Seeing a Counsellor or Psychotherapist can help you to identify when those feelings of “shark music” are starting to surface. You will learn how to acknowledge, reflect and discharge them safely, responding rather than reacting to a stressful situation.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, and you would like some help in identifying your own behavioural triggers, why not give me a call?