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Just Say No to Prescriptive Parenting Approaches

How to understand and respond to the true meaning of your child's behavior.

Key points

  • All behavior has meaning. Understanding what's behind children's behavior is critical for responding sensitively and effectively.
  • Simply addressing a behavior, absent an understanding of the function and meaning of that behavior, is rarely effective.
  • Identifying the root cause entails looking at the child's development, temperament, and context/environmental factors.

When I collaborate with families to solve the childrearing challenges they face, we start by doing the detective work of putting the pieces of the puzzle together that help us understand the meaning of their child's behavior. Only then can I provide guidance that is developmentally appropriate and effective, because it addresses the root cause of the challenge. One-size-fits-all approaches that simply address a behavior, absent an understanding of the function and meaning of that behavior, are rarely effective. Indeed, most families who come to see me have already tried prescriptive approaches to stopping tantrums or getting their kids to sleep. When these systems don't work, parents feel they have failed and despair that they won't find a way to successfully solve these challenges.

Below I lay out the key factors for decoding the meaning of your child's behavior to enable you to devise strategies that address the underlying issues at work. This opens the door to being the loving, in-charge parent your kids need you to be.

Key Factors

Development: The age and stage of the child

At around 9 months, a baby starts to protest when her parents drop her off at child care. Her growing understanding of the concept of object permanence—that things and people still exist even though she can’t see them—makes her parents’ departure more upsetting. She now realizes they are still out there somewhere and not with her.

A 2-year-old has an epic meltdown when her dad says "no" to getting a toy at the store. At this age, even when a parent prepares the child for what to expect, in the heat of the moment the "downstairs," reactive brain kicks into high gear. The part of the brain that helps children manage their emotions and impulses is in the earliest stages of development, so losing it when they can't have what they want when they want it is to be expected and is not "misbehavior."

A 3-year-old erupts in frustration as soon as he confronts a challenge. It turns out he has a slight expressive language delay, which makes it hard for him to "use his words" to ask for help. He is more likely to act on his feelings.

A 4-year-old is having social challenges in his preschool classroom. He is being unkind to peers, threatening that he will not play with them or invite them to his house for a play date if they don't let him be in charge. At 4, children are becoming much more keenly aware of how they are alike and different from others. This is the age when kids start to notice and wonder about things like: why boys and girls have different body parts; why people have different skin colors; why some kids have a mom and dad and others have two moms, two dads, or, one mom and no dad. In the case of this 4-year-old, he is the only child of a single mom by choice. He has been asking more questions about his origin story and is also begging his mom for another sibling, which is not going to happen. We have to consider that one piece of this puzzle is that he is acting out his envy of kids who have siblings, and his confusion about his place in the world that he is working hard to make sense of.

Temperament: The child's individual approach to the world

Temperament is something we are all born with, not something your child chose or that you instilled in him. It is a biological phenomenon that influences the way children process their experiences in the world. It's why some children jump right into new situations and others are anxious and need time to warm up to the unfamiliar. It's why some children go with the flow and weather life’s ups and downs with ease, and others have big reactions to seemingly minor events. It is also why siblings can be so different. They grow up in the same family and share DNA, but their reactions to the very same experiences, such as a move, a loss, or their parents’ approach to discipline, may be vastly different based on their temperament.

Take a child who is having a hard time transitioning to a new school. Temperament is likely to be a big factor in how a child manages this change. Highly sensitive kids ("orchids"*) who get overwhelmed more easily by their big emotions and feel a greater need to exert control over their world are more likely than go-with-the-flow kids ("dandelions"*) to be fearful and cautious and need more time and support to adapt.

Or, consider a child who is drawing her parent into next-level food battles. One variable may be that there is a sensory issue at play in this child's resistance to trying new foods. The child may have a heightened olfactory sense. Foods with seemingly benign smells are overwhelming and aversive to him. Or, he may feel uncomfortable with certain textures. He is not rejecting foods on purpose, he is coping with real discomfort.

Context/Environment: The child's experiences in the world

Significant changes, such as a move, the loss of an important person or pet, divorce, separation, the birth of a new sibling, a change in child care arrangements, or traumatic events like a death in the family or exposure to family or community violence, can all result in behavioral changes—including challenging behavior. Even minor changes, like moving from the crib to a big kid bed, can sometimes lead to a short-term change in a child’s behavior. That’s because young children thrive on predictability. Routines make them feel safe.

These kinds of changes or experiences in a child’s life can create a sense of insecurity, sadness, fear, or anger that can cause children to become clingy, withdrawn, and more easily distracted. Children may also show greater frustration, distress, and have a harder time recovering from meltdowns. You might also see children becoming anxious, over-active, or aggressive. Or, there may be some regression—a backslide in a child's development; for example, having toileting accidents after mastering toilet learning, or waking frequently at night after having learned to sleep through until the morning.

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together

Just this week I met with parents ("Amanda" and "Bruce") of a 3-year-old ("Raphael") who is spiraling out of control. He has become very defiant. When they are threatening negative consequences in the face of his opposition, he laughs at them. He is also constantly yanking their chain with a lot of vitriol and provocative behavior. Amanda and Bruce are both very concerned but also at their wits' end. They have resorted to threats, yelling, and punishment which is not making a difference and which they feel terrible about but they don't know know what else to do.

We start by doing the detective work, considering each piece of the puzzle:

1. Development. We know that 3-year-olds are notorious for wanting to be the boss of everything. They crave control and will take it wherever they can get it. Defiance is their default. Whatever tactics work to get their way goes in the "win" column and is reinforced as a successful strategy. Raphael is no exception. He is drawing his parents into constant power struggles, which is resulting in a lot of attention, even if it's negative attention. Their reactivity also effectively puts him in charge, where he wants to be but decidedly not where he belongs. The lack of clear limits and boundaries is increasing, not decreasing his dysregulation.

2. Temperament. Raphael is wired to be a sensitive little guy. Even as a baby he would have big reactions to changes in his world. He is an avid thumb-sucker and hair-twirler, soothing strategies that signal that a child is feeling overwhelmed and trying to calm himself. Highly sensitive kids tend to rely more heavily on these kinds of self-soothing strategies because they are triggered into stress mode more easily and need to find ways to feel calm.

3. Context/Environment. This family has experienced an insane amount of change in the past three months: nearly constant travel to see family throughout the summer, several moves since their return as they await the completion of a home renovation, and the start of a new school for Raphael. Amanda and Bruce also report that their own stress is next-level and that they have been fighting a lot, more often than they would like, in front of the kids.

When looking at Raphael's behavior from this perspective, with these insights, it makes perfect sense. The confluence of his age/stage of development, his sensitive temperament, and the changes in his world are putting him over the edge. The shifts in his routine, which he strongly relies on to feel calm and safe in the world, have stressed his system to the point that any coping skills he may have had are compromised, hence his total dysregulation.

This insight moves Amanda and Bruce from anger and frustration to understanding and empathy; from interpreting Raphael's "misbehavior" as purposeful to seeing that Raphael is having difficulty managing his big emotions and that he doesn't have the ability to cope with such seismic shifts in his world.

The plan

These mind-shifts enable Amanda and Bruce to make some key course corrections:

  • They make a commitment to stop arguing in front of the kids. They develop a cueing system that signals to each other that it's time to pause and take a mommy/daddy time-out when tempers are flaring.
  • They establish family rituals to provide some stability during this time that they are still living outside their family home. For example, they read halfway through a book each morning before they take Raphael to school and finish it when they reunite at the end of the day.
  • They create a visual schedule so Raphael knows exactly what to expect: who is taking him to school, who is doing pickup, who is doing the bedtime routine, etc.
  • They ask the teacher for recommendations of kids in Raphael's new class who would be a good fit. They make some play dates with those children so Raphael can develop a connection to a few classmates outside the intensity of the school environment.
  • They establish clear limits and enforce them calmly and lovingly, even in the face of Raphael's vehement protests.
  • They don't react when Raphael engages in provocative behavior. Instead, they address the underlying issue: "I know you're mad that I won't read more books. I don't expect you to be happy about that. But that's a mommy/daddy rule."

This shift in mindset and approach to supporting Raphael enables Amanda and Bruce to be the rock that he needs right now to feel safe and secure in the world, which starts to increase his ability to cope. A win for all.

References

Boyce, W Thomas. The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. New York: Knopf, 2019

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