Q: I know you’ve written a lot about kids’ behavior, and I’m trying really hard to follow your good advice. I guess I need some reminders, because my three kids are not behaving. Even my two little ones don’t do what I tell them to, they talk back, and they’re angry and aggressive a lot of the time. They all seem out of control, which makes me out of control most days. I feel helpless to make them behave. I get sucked into their fights a lot. My oldest is more quiet, but I think he might be depressed. I’d really appreciate some information.

A: Your story is indeed a common one, as many parents are struggling with busy lives, full schedules, multiple commitments. The fallout of this is that we don’t have enough time to raise our children. Sadly, the confluence of all these factors creates major stress in families, which you seem to be experiencing. 

First, try to disengage from the chaos and aggression (probably more likely when your children are at school or, at least, not with you) to consider what is fueling the chronic “mis-behavior.” When we’re looking at just one child out of sync, it might be more clear. That particular child may be jealous, overstimulated, tired. However, when all three of your children are acting out, there are some underlying issues that need to be addressed. The behavior indicates a common thread of emotional imbalance with each of them. 

I’ve heard many children reinforce how exhausted and stressed they are with such full calendars — between homework and outside activities, they have little, if any, time to just be, to relax. We think that children will stay out of trouble if we keep them constantly busy, yet it’s important to have balance, allowing time for imaginative play and for family connection. Talking with our children, to hear and understand what’s going on with each of them — their successes, failures, their struggles, what they love — is needed. When everyone in a family is frantically trying to manage their respective schedules, we miss connecting with each other. Children who feel they’re unconditionally supported, accepted for who they are, and unconditionally loved are more likely to make good choices, thus staying “out of trouble.”

All children want to do well, to be successful. Their behavior is telling us how they’re trying to be successful. “I know she’s out to get me when I see her face coming at me early in the morning” is an assumption. We believe that her behaving that way is on purpose, determined to ruin our day. No child is happy being manipulative or out of control. When our child is not being successful, there’s something blocking his way. Children typically want to please. It’s important to consider development, temperament, their available skills, and the environmental factors (at home, at school, and any other significant place children spend time, thereby affected by the emotional “climate”).

It is the thoughts we have about our child that make us react a certain way. Our feelings of guilt, anger, resentment belong to us, not our child. Our traditional rewards-and-punishment approach is based on rewarding children when their behavior is good, and punishing them when it’s bad. That approach makes it impossible to connect to the emotional root of our child’s behavior. When we’re triggered by our own past, our strong emotions, reactions, and negative assumptions about our child, we “catastrophize,” taking their behavior personally, believing the worst about them. “He’ll become a juvenile delinquent” or “I know she’ll never be trustworthy” or “He will never be successful, he’ll probably drop out of school.”

By reacting to the behavior we don’t like, we’re ineffective and damaging to our children. When our children aren’t doing well or being successful, it’s not because they won’t, it’s because they can’t. Some need of theirs is not being met. I understand it’s very challenging to view your child through that lens when you’ve been triggered, locked into a power struggle, or enraged by some behavior that’s unacceptable. To shift from reacting to responding requires some self-reflection when you’re not around your children. Try to figure out what drives your parenting style. The more transparent you are with yourself, the more clearly you’ll understand how your needs and your past impact how you treat your children. Consider some of the following points:

• When he’s misbehaving, try reframing the behavior to “He’s struggling, what can I/we do to help him shift that.” 

• What triggers my anger when my children talk back to me? What would have happened if I spoke to my parents that way?

• When my children fight, what have they witnessed between my husband and me? Am I stepping in as the judge, determining who is the victim and the perpetrator?

• If their behavior is unacceptable, what needs of theirs are being blocked? 

• Am I treating my children with the same respect I expect from them?

Of course, putting connective communication into practice, when your child is hitting another sibling or is out of control, is challenging. Instead we react: “How dare he do this?!” Often what we say to our children gets lost in translation, for what they hear can be very different from the message we intended. When a child feels he’s bad, he may hear any imposed limit simply reinforcing he isn’t lovable or acceptable the way he is.

Above all, we want our children to be happy, resilient, self-confident, kind, compassionate. To achieve this, we need to ensure they have sufficient autonomy, the chance to have some control to make their own choices (of course, within reason and age-appropriate). The most important goal is the relationship we shape with our children. Being right doesn’t matter as much as having our children trust we’ll listen and understand their feelings. Misbehavior is much easier to address when our children feel safe with us — emotionally as well as physically. We want them to come to us with their problems, to ask our advice, to want to spend time with us. If they know they can trust us, they’re far more invested in doing what we ask when it’s important.

If we want to build a healthy community, we need to ensure healthy families, raising children who feel good about themselves. We must first slow down to connect to our children. Savoring time with them translates to meaningful, close relationships. Let’s not be in such a hurry to get past the challenging times, for we can learn from them — about ourselves and about the needs of our children. When my first child was born, we repeatedly heard, “They grow up too fast.” Yeah, yeah, yeah ...

Yet, it’s true!