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Parent's Guide to Understanding and Managing Challenging Behaviors

Shelia and Josh have three kids; two, six, and eleven. By all external standards, they are mastering every stage of parenting. They appear to be the model family. While the kids are polite and kind in public and around extended family, at home, there’s another story. Shelia’s bedside table is stacked with four books on parenting, stages, and child development. Instead of checking in on each other, Shelia and Josh’s time together is dominated by overanalyzing, criticizing, and even arguing about the various parenting strategies. 

The problem: their eleven-year-old is entering the preteen stage, the six-year-old is constantly acting out, and their two-year-old is forcing them to redefine everything they thought they knew about parenting because nothing that worked with the older two is working with their youngest. Their marriage is strained. They are always tired, frustrated, and dismayed at the thought of letting their kids down. All they want is to give their kids the absolute best, yet at every corner is another challenge they weren’t prepared for. 

Does any of this sound even remotely familiar? Can you relate? While this story is entirely fiction, it rings true with many parents looking for guidance on understanding and managing their child’s challenging and often changing behaviors. There is no doubt that parenting is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we can face. But it’s also one of the greatest joys. It’s the only job where no experience is required. No training, no school, no tests, and no internships to prepare you. Rest assured; there is good news. 

In Brain Balance’s latest webinar conversation, Dr. Rebecca Jackson had an incredibly insightful conversation with  Dr. Michelle Robertson, a 25-year veteran clinician as a marriage and family therapist. Her expertise is in how people relate to one another and how those patterns of interacting become both helpful and harmful to the individuals in the system and the system itself over time. In other words, she is an incredible resource in helping parents connect better with their children to do more than just manage behavior but provide them with a skillset. 

 So Let’s Talk About Behavior

The number one question parents ask when kids are constantly acting out is, “Did I do something to cause this behavior?” The result leaves us frustrated, overwhelmed, paralyzed, dismayed, and discouraged. The world’s greatest responsibility turns into the world’s greatest nightmare. 

What are these behaviors? Any actions or actions that can negatively affect the well-being of the child or those around them. These can include temper tantrums, aggression, defiance, and self-injury—all of the things our kids do. But it is also important to remember that this is not about a degree of behavior or perceived severity. Your hard is still hard. So don’t look on social media to see if your kid is better than your neighbor's. It’s not an honest comparison. At Brain Balance, we teach you to evaluate things based on the impact that it is having on you, not the impact of other people’s behavior on them. 

Common Types of Challenging Behaviors

When it comes to challenging behaviors in children, parents may come across a few common types. These behaviors can vary in severity and impact relationships, learning, and overall functioning. Are any of these taking over your house? 

  • Talking back: This can be frustrating for parents as it can come across as disrespect or defiance. Children may talk back when they feel unheard or when they are struggling to communicate effectively.

  • Not following directions: This can indicate impulsivity or difficulty with executive functioning. Children may struggle to prioritize or get easily distracted, leading them to forget or ignore directions.

  • Antagonizing siblings: Sibling rivalry is normal, but when one child consistently antagonizes another, it can impact the family dynamic.

  • Aggression: This can take many forms, such as hitting, kicking, or biting. Aggression may stem from frustration, difficulty with impulse control, or difficulty regulating emotions.

These behaviors are not intentional. I want you to read that again. These behaviors are not intentional. Your children’s brains are still developing and do not have the same self-control and emotional regulation skills as adults. They may not know how to express themselves or manage their emotions in healthy ways.

Dr. Robertson liberates us, as parents, with two simple truths that, in the middle of a nuclear meltdown in the frozen food aisle at the grocery, are hard to remember. First, Children will do well if they can, and second, doing well is preferable for them. In other words, yes, it’s true. Your kids want to be good. Even when their arms are flailing about while shoppers stare and judge you. 

Factors Contributing to Challenging Behaviors

Be encouraged; you are not the cause. However, there is an element that we are responsible for paving the way for you to be part of the solution. The reality is that avoiding the misbehavior, the backtalk, sibling torture, and grocery store shenanigans is simply not going to happen. But you can use these moments to help their brains grow by giving them the skills to manage their emotions as they grow properly. 

Rightsizing Our Expectations

As parents, we must take a step back and reassess our expectations. When our kids are born, we consciously or subconsciously set expectations or specific targets to hit. Each developmental stage, every milestone, and every parenting strategy is built off an indicator or mark down the road that we have already predetermined and expected our kids to hit. But by doing this, we never take a second to consider the capacity of our kids to hit that predetermined mark. 

These unrealistic goals and expectations lead to frustration and disappointment for both us and our children. Every child is unique, and their developmental progress may differ from their peers. 

By understanding our children's individual strengths and limitations, we can acknowledge that our children may not excel in all areas and that it's okay. For example, if your child struggles with reading, expecting them to be an advanced reader overnight is unreasonable. Instead, focus on incremental progress, celebrating small achievements, and supporting them in their journey. What might seem like lower expectations is really just adjusting them so that you can meet your child where there are. 

I know what you’re thinking. In your earliest days as a parent, you may have been taught that disruptive behavior was an act of attention-seeking or testing the limits. And you thought your job was to hold your ground and win. What if that’s not actually true? Our kids are asking for help because they want to do well. It’s just that they are not asking in the ways that we can hear it, and then we miss it.

Instead, we parent out of fear, project our hurts on them through our parenting style, we try to control their behavior so we don’t feel bad or judged; we find ourselves embarrassed by our kids, so we end up shamming them, creating in them a sense that there is something wrong with them. We separate them from the family and demand they calm down without ever really helping them do it. We try to get them to comply by using our authority. But instead of helping them regulate their behavior, they become more dysregulated and foster more defiant behavior. 

The goal is to work with them collaboratively with our children to solve whatever problem is in front of them, not just to change behavior but to increase their confidence.

Helping Our Kids Learn Behavior as a Skill

So if we propose that the old model of rewards and punishments and authority only attempts to manage behavior rather than train for emotional maturity, what’s the preferred method? We all know how this works. Your child misbehaves, so you threaten a punishment—taking toys away, grounding, etc. But in the end, they either call your bluff or force you to follow through on the threat. That might create some remorse and even the desire for an apology, but what now? Did your child learn anything besides, don’t make mom or dad mad? 

Think less of motivation and more skill building. 

Fortunately, Dr. Robertson provides us with a simple five-step process that will provide a pragmatic and practical approach that will help not only your child but you as well. It will help your parenting, but also your stress level. It will help their behavior, but also your marriage. 

These five things are based on what is called Attachment-Based Strategies.

Step 1: Stay grounded and regulated. When your child exhibits challenging behavior, it's easy to get swept up in their emotions and lose your sense of calm. Before you try to address the behavior, take a moment to regulate your own emotions. Take some deep breaths, do a quick meditation or visualization exercise, or take a break if you need to. 

When the entire store is watching, it’s easy to allow our emotions to overtake us leading us to a bad decision. 

Step 2: Re-regulate. Now that you’re calm, it’s time to address your child. Get down to your child's level so that you're eye-to-eye. Kneel down, sit down together, toss a ball back and forth. The goal here is to create a space so they can have the time needed to process their emotions. This can help them feel more seen and heard and can help you stay connected to their experience.

When our kids experience big emotions, it is essential to acknowledge and validate those emotions rather than dismiss them or punish them for feeling a certain way. By acknowledging and validating their emotions, we can teach our children to recognize their feelings and understand that it is okay to feel that way.

Step 3: Co-regulate. This is where parents often leave things. You’re calm, they are calm. Now it’s time to double down on your expectations, right? Wrong. Remember, the point isn’t manipulating to meet your expectations or desired behavior. The goal is skill development. So instead, continue to talk to them in a calm voice (calmness is contagious) and validate their emotions. Use a nickname or term of endearment. At this moment, you are not trying to solve the problem. Instead, you let your child know you are here to help them work through it.

Step 4: Relate to them. When upset or frustrated, your child must feel seen, heard, and understood. Take the time to really listen to what they're saying (or what they're not saying) and respond compassionately and empathetic. Show them that you care and that you want to help.

Step 5: Learn together. Once your child feels calmer and regulated, you can start talking about what happened and what they can do differently next time. Use this to teach them emotions, boundaries, and other critical social skills. By reflecting on and learning from their experiences, your child can become more self-assured and better equipped to handle future challenges.

Moving Forward

Just remember that as we teach our kids a new skill that will serve them for a lifetime, we, too, must retrain ourselves to react differently to those tense parenting situations. In many ways, we have to forget what we thought we knew about rewards, punishments, motivation, and authority; and seek to connect with our kids differently. It’s hard, and rest assured, you (and me and everyone else) will make plenty of mistakes. When you do, apologize to your kids. Tell them you messed up. Ask for forgiveness and move forward. 

Keep practicing. The whole family will be better for it. And as always, Brain Balance is here to help. 

Research Shows Brain Balance is Effective

Research has shown that trouble focusing or blocking out distractions is tied to weak connections or information pathways across different regions of the brain. The good news is that these information pathways in the brain can change and develop in a way that may improve these symptoms.

A Harvard study found that Brain Balance's non-drug cognitive training program significantly reduces ADHD index scores, discernible changes in hyperactivity, enhanced cognitive attention, and reduced oppositional behavior. The study revealed comparable results similar to those of a low-dose drug often used to treat the symptoms of ADHD.

Brain Balance exercises and activities are uniquely designed to help strengthen and build new pathways by combining physical, sensory, and cognitive activities. More efficient information pathways in the brain can improve cognitive tasks (focus, memory, learning, comprehension, reasoning) and executive functioning (behaviors, emotions, organization, self-motivation, and problem-solving).

Our program and experts can help your family dial in the right tools to unleash your child’s potential. Let’s talk more about how Brain Balance can help your child. Fill out the form and share your story with us. One of our knowledgeable team members will reach out to discuss your child's personalized plan.

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