Putting an End to Bad Behavior

Friday, May 4th, 2012

This morning my son called me stupid.

Sitting here at my desk, post-coffee, I’m willing to admit that I actually am sometimes. And yet, the word stung. There I was, up at the crack of dawn, packing his lunch, sorting the laundry, changing diapers, cooking breakfast, getting him and his siblings prepared for the day, and his greeting to me was an insult. I stayed calm, but on the inside, I fumed.

Not cool, kid. Don’t start with me this morning.

He also hit his brother, threw toys, yelled at his baby sister, woke up my wife, refused to brush his teeth, complained about breakfast, and was slow to put his shoes on. I tried to coach myself to chill out, but the inner voices were getting louder.

He’s obviously a sociopath. Maybe there’s a reform school or boot camp that can fix him. I would have NEVER done this stuff with MY parents. This nonviolence stuff just makes bratty, spoiled kids!

Ok, I don’t actually think he’s a sociopath. And I certainly haven’t given up on nonviolence. But in the heat of moments like these, it’s tempting to focus in on the kid’s “bad behavior.” He’s doing stuff that he shouldn’t do. He’s crossing some boundaries, and it’s really not ok. He’s disobedient, non-compliant, and… you know, badly behaved.

Making an effort to look at a situation like this one using the Echo Approach doesn’t mean that his behaviors are acceptable. This isn’t a permissive style of parenting. But if I focus on just trying to change the “bad behavior,” I’m likely to use methods I’ll regret later. Methods that will be disconnecting.

Here’s the Echo reframe on “bad behavior.” All behaviors are strategies for trying to meet needs. No, he’s not using acceptable strategies. But if I can see these things as an attempt to meet some needs, then I can approach him with curiosity. Why is he doing this stuff? What’s underneath his actions? The message for my son is that his feelings and needs are totally legitimate, even if his strategies are not okay.

I’m happy to report that this morning, I kept my cool and got curious. I began to do the mapping process of wondering why he’s struggling this morning. Hmm… Well, yesterday he began taking the state standardized tests at school (see Alfie Kohn’s great articles about why these kind of tests are detrimental – but I digress…). He’s in 2nd grade and it’s the first time he’s ever taken tests. He’s been nervous and stressed about it, and there’s more testing today. Has he been getting enough sleep? He’s been restless in the night, and the research is clear about the effects of sleep deprivation. What else has been going on in his life? There have been a few stressful things happening in our house the last couple of weeks… school, work, family… hmm… oh yeah, there’s a new baby at our house…

I didn’t have it all figured out, but I was able to see him as the awesome little guy he is, just with kind of crappy strategies. I was able to hold limits this morning with compassion. It went something like this:


HIM: You’re stupid!

ME: Hey! That’s…

I breathed. I paused, and tried to calm down before I went down the low road.

ME: What’s up? You seem really upset.

HIM: Shut up! You don’t care about me at all!

Ugh. Big huge feelings. Dysregulation. He seemed really tired and clearly frustrated. I didn’t give up, but it seemed like a really bad time to try to engage. I took another intentional breath.

ME: I made you some eggs and toast.

Five minutes passed. We ate a little, and then I tried again.

ME: Pretty frustrated this morning, huh?

HIM: It’s not fair. You give all the attention to the baby and you don’t even care about me.

ME: Wow, that sounds awful! I didn’t know you felt that. I was taking care of her this morning, and not you. But of course you really need attention too…

The problems weren’t solved. But I gave him empathy, he eventually felt understood, and then I was able to talk about my feelings about being called stupid, hitting his brother, and all of the other limits. Did I make the “bad behavior” go away? Not exactly, but we both felt connected at the end of our exchange. There was mutual respect, and it’s my belief that people who feel respected and understood are more likely to cooperate than those who don’t. Will it happen again? Yes, I’m sure it will. And when it does, I hope I’ll have the patience and presence of mind to be curious about why he chooses the strategies he chooses. If I can accomplish that, then I can model the kind of strategies that I hope he’ll use later when he encounters a stressful or frustrating situation.

So, “putting an end to bad behavior” means looking at it a different way – as strategies for meeting needs. If I can see it that way, I’m much more likely to awaken my creativity about how to get through the tough moments.


Brian Joseph
Director of Teaching

3 Responses to “Putting an End to Bad Behavior”

  1. Ashley says:

    GENIUS! I had this almost exact encounter with my Mr. 7 today but,I was lost on how to handle it and did the whole “Hey, THAT’S NOT NICE!” maneuver…needless to say it wasn’t very successful and our day was pretty crappy from there on out.

    Thanks for this! It was just what I needed.

  2. ashley says:

    I have the same issues with my 2 year old son Levi except that I don’t have any other kids and he doesn’t take tests and being 2 its hard for him to express his feelings.

  3. hi ashley-

    yeah, you’re totally right. it’s not about taking tests. my point is that behaviors are expressing SOMETHING. and that there’s always a backstory to everything.

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