By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Almost all misbehavior is caused by unhappiness over the child’s needs being unfulfilled. The purpose of the child’s attachment with his parents is to fulfill those emotional and physical needs, so the lack of happiness he feels at the time of misbehavior is usually the result of his feeling not as attached as he needs to be. His misbehavior is a desperate attempt to fulfill those needs, and gain happiness through attachment. While considering how to handle my child’s misbehavior, we need to understand that it is an indication that an attachment wound has opened up, and it is thus a marvelous time to apply medicine, that is the medicine of attachment, fulfillment of needs and happiness. It is precisely at the moment of misbehavior that the child needs us to make him feel: “I will be there for you, I will always connect with you, I will fulfill your needs for pleasure, happiness, security and positive feelings!” In order to heal the child, we must respond in such moments with extreme compassion, gentleness, patience, kindness and flexibility. It is absolutely no time for punishments, strictness, rebukes, reprimands, ignoring or “Consequences.”
How to handle my child's misbehavior? Remember, Unhappiness feels like an abandonment!
When a child’s needs go unfulfilled even a little bit, it is experienced as a mini-abandonment. Let’s say a child was told to leave the park early and this disappointed him. Then he asked for ice cream, was told no, and began to tantrum. Usually such a child was suffering from a low happiness level due to previous stressors even before he went to the park, just the park and the ice cream was the last straw. He is essentially screaming out to us “My basic need for happiness is going grossly unfulfilled! I am desperate for the kind of happiness and pleasure that a gift of ice cream provides and going any longer without such pleasure, or a substitute, is intolerable! Your not fulfilling that need makes me feel I am truly abandoned and no one is taking care of me. I desperately need to be reattached and reassured that my needs will be fulfilled.” You don’t have to buy him ice cream at the moment necessarily, but you need to do something to show him, “You can count on me to provide you with the happiness you need, I am here, connected to you, I will rescue you from your state of need.” Never fear that by doing so you will spoil your child, and he will become even more demanding. That assumes a very cynical view of children, that they will think, “Last time I threw a tantrum and my mother provided me with happiness. I will purposely throw tantrums in the future in a manipulative way in order to fool her into giving me treats that I neither need or deserve, in an effort to fulfill my selfish desires.” There never existed a child who thinks that way! A tantrum is instead a reaction to overwhelming emotions over lack of happiness and attachment. It is always the result of an emotional storm, never a cunning, calculating plot. Neither are frivolous desires involved, these are deep and fundamental needs. The truth is, fulfilling those needs at the moment of a tantrum will greatly reduce the probability of another tantrum in the future. The child will think, “Mommy is taking care of me,” and will be much more secure and actually able to better handle disappointments without misbehavior in the future. Simply raising a child’s happiness level on a regular basis prevents all kinds of difficulties!
Be extremely nice to your child!
Therefore take advantage of misbehavior as an opportunity to shower your child with attention, kindness, affection and attachment. I know it is difficult but the results will be amazing! Your child will truly heal and a wonderful parent-child relationship will ensue.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal and a high level of parenting skill, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly or immediately. Rather have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
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