Why Do Kids Act Up?

According to neuroscience, our children are like puppies.

Posted Sep 30, 2019

Photo by Phil Goodwin on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Phil Goodwin on Unsplash

Kids act up. They interrupt, they hit other kids, they speak to us disrespectfully, they refuse to pick up their messes, and they generally drive their parents crazy. Why do they do it?

Most parents have heard enough about brain development to think of it as "testing." The narrative goes like this: Kids must test us and our rules in many different situations to build their brain structure. Until they internalize the rules, they cannot stop testing us.

Furthermore, as they get older, they know the rules, but they still test as part of developing their independence. The narrative is behavioral; fundamentally, even if it’s for developmental reasons, we believe kids are doing it on purpose.

What if we’ve got it all wrong?

What if behavior comes from something much deeper? UNC Professor of Psychiatry Stephen Porges thinks behavior starts in our autonomic nervous system, far beneath our awareness. This is consistent with research findings in neuroscience that show our brain makes decisions before we even know it.

Known for his Polyvagal Theory, Porges thinks we need to write a different narrative about our kids’ behavior. During our interview, he shared, “Polyvagal theory gives parents another perspective on the underlying motivations of the child's behavior. What parents tend to think is that behavior is motivated for a reason: to get something or to do something and not a manifestation of the child's physiological state. But it's, as a child, attempting to survive in this complex world.”

The Polyvagal Theory

According to the Polyvagal Theory, our physiological state depends on how much “tone” or input we are getting from the vagus nerve. When we are doing well and socially engaged, our ventral vagus nerve is active, and we connect with others. We will have an expressive face and a more musical voice (vocal prosody).

But when we feel threatened, we start to experience the fight-or-flight response from the sympathetic nerve and feel anxiety. Finally, when we perceive a life threat, the dorsal vagus nerve activates the freeze response, and we feel depression.  

The idea is that our nervous system is perceiving things and changing our physiological state prior to our conscious thought. Our behavior flows from our state rather than our conscious control.

Autonomic states in children

Porges wants us to remember that children are much smaller than their parents. There are “power differentials, and we're placing the child always in a chronic state of evaluation. And chronic states of evaluation are really metaphors for putting people in defensive states physiologically. When people get into physiological states that support defense, they support fight-or-flight behaviors: outbursts, tantrums, aggressive behavior, oppositional behavior.”

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

So the most common ways children misbehave are due to autonomic state? “But it's not even misbehaving,” Porges clarified. “When you misbehave, there's an entitlement. I'm always very interested in what the narrative becomes when physiological state shifts.”

He explained that when we have a disagreement, our physiological state shifts, and we express that shift to anyone who is in close proximity. It’s not really about them; it’s about our state.

“In a sense, you act out at them,” said Dr. Porges. “The metaphor I heard when I was growing up: ‘then Johnny kicked the dog.’ The old story was Dad comes home and screams at the housewife, the housewife screams at the child, and then Johnny kicks the dog.”

“So what I'm really saying is that we're not really understanding the motivational system that produces the behavior, and we're treating it much more as learning or cognition,” he continued. “And we think that discipline is in a way out. But the irony is if discipline worked, these problems would not be manifested.”

To be clear, Porges thinks of discipline in the military sense, and under his model, that means the kind of correction that feels unsafe to our system.

“We think that the removal of a threat is the equivalent of safety. But our nervous system makes a very clear distinction between threat and cues of safety. So removing threat is a good thing. It's not a bad thing, but it doesn't make us feel safe,” said Porges.

Maybe we should treat our kids like puppies

To feel safe, our bodies need cues of safety. Porges said, “What are cues of safety? It's not really like saying, ‘I'm going to protect you, don't worry.’ It’s the intonation of a parent or teacher’s voice, the contingency of facial expressiveness. The cues that, if we have a puppy, we would be very understanding of what to do. We talk melodically to the puppy; we wouldn’t make quick movements.”

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

He believes that if we stop treating children as “sophisticated, motivated, and moral organisms,” whose actions come with “planned intention to be hurtful or to be obstructionist,” we will get a lot further. When we simply try to understand the state of the child, our child comes into a calmer state. “Then the learning process is certainly much more efficient, you have more contact, you would basically say, that child is more contingent and reciprocal, and therefore has a better opportunity to understand.”

Does the need to feel safe mean we can never correct our children?

One of the most criticized features of our current parenting culture is the way we over-protect our children, robbing them of chances to grow resilience. Don’t we go a little too far with this kind of safety-ism?

But Porges says there is a difference between supporting a child’s autonomic state and over-protecting them: “I think over-protecting is not being sensitive to the needs of the child, it's not being present with this child, to understand what is causing the child to shift states.”

Being present with the child

Those few words identify the heart of the issue: being present with the child. One mother recently shared an update with me about her own child, whose defiance and tantrums at bedtime had put her in tears. It had gotten so much better recently, she told me. What had changed?

“When we stay in the moment of helping him instead of fighting with him, if I just spend an extra minute here and help him, he calms down.” She explained that in the past, “I was caught in frustration, thinking, ‘Why can’t he just go to bed?’”

What a remarkable insight! This mother no longer understood her son as misbehaving and difficult but saw his frankly defiant behavior at bedtime as an opportunity to help him. It was working, and her son was showing them his lovable, sweet nature. He was also going to bed.

This is far from permissive parenting. The loving presence of a parent brings the child into a state of physiologic regulation where he or she can make a good decision. This is simply effective parenting.