Changing Behavior Patterns
A parent at a workshop expressed, “my son talks back and it gets me so mad. I know I’m probably contributing to his acting out but it sets me off every time.” “It feels like my daughter tries to get me upset. Why would she do that?” another lamented. When we have identified patterns in our children’s behavior that we want to change — particularly those that push our hottest buttons — how do we change them?
In fact, that is the time when we have to examine our own reactions. Consider that children’s behavior will indeed change when adults’ reactions change. There may be an adjustment period as they experience you differently but ultimately children will adapt to their caregiver’s choices and reactions. The good news is that our reaction is something we can control. The challenge for us then becomes how do we change and how do we know what behaviors to shift toward in order to elicit a more constructive reaction? You might ask the following key questions:
- What patterns in my child’s behaviors do I want to change?
- What behaviors would I like to see my child adopt instead in those same circumstances?
- How can my reactions to their undesirable behaviors demonstrate the behaviors I would like to see in them – so that I am modeling what I want to see reflected back to me?
“I know what I don’t want to do, but I’m not sure what I can do instead.” said a parent as we further discussed challenges. Often it is easier to look back on the experiences from our childhood and know exactly what we don’t want to repeat. But if we haven’t explored the connections between our current parenting challenges and our experiences as children related to similar issues, we may – consciously or unconsciously – repeat them. We get caught up in a cycle of shame and guilt and then fear and regret when we feel out of control with our children and at times, ourselves.
And there’s brain science to explain why that occurs. Our experiences from our own childhoods are part of our mental wiring. That’s why when children challenge us, we feel it can bring out our worst selves. Parenting from the Inside Out authors explain it this way:
Experiences that are not fully processed may create unresolved and leftover issues that influence how we react to our children…When this happens our responses toward our children often take the form of strong emotional reactions, impulsive behaviors, distortions in our perceptions or sensations in our bodies. These intense states of mind impair our ability to think clearly and remain flexible and affect our interactions and relationships with our children.1
The good news is that patterns can be changed. You can get out of that cycle of shame, guilt, fear and regret. Countless individuals have been able to raise their children in ways that align with their values, changing patterns from their pasts. These individuals are sons and daughters of parents with mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction and the behaviors that are associated with those illnesses including emotional and physical violence and abuse. Parents with those kinds of experiences as part of their childhood story may not perpetuate an addiction themselves but be quickly wounded when a child lashes out and may be prone to lash back.
So the big question is “How do you change those patterns?” The only path to truly addressing patterns we don’t want to repeat is through self-awareness, intentionality, goal setting, practice (a.k.a. diligent work on it) and a commitment to continual learning. Perhaps that means seeking a counselor to share your childhood story with to work on processing themes from your past. Perhaps that means journaling, reading and reflecting on how you can heal your own wounds. Certainly it requires learning about how you will replace the old behaviors with new behaviors. Instead of yelling when my child won’t get out of the door on time and we are going to be late for school, what can I do? What can I say? And most importantly, how can I help myself deal with my own emotions in that moment so that I am able to bring a better self to the moment?
Build your own self-awareness first.
We all have blind spots – aspects of ourselves we are simply too close to see. That is why seeking support is so critical. Coaches, counselors, therapists and other mental health professionals are trained to listen to our stories and then reflect our blind spots back to us to help raise our self-awareness. Have you ever said something that, perhaps, had been in your mind but never articulated out loud? And when you did say it out loud to another person, just the act of articulating it gave you your own “aha” insight into yourself. Those moments of raised self-awareness are essential if we are going to grow as parents and bring the selves we want to bring to our children. In addition to talking with a trained professional, reflection is another way to raise self-awareness. Use a journal dedicated solely to parenting and understanding what you bring to parenting from your own childhood. Write out links between your current challenges and how those same kinds of challenges were handled when you were young. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What are the behaviors your children exhibit that challenge you the most?
- How do you feel when those behaviors occur?
- What actions do you typically take when they occur? What words do you usually use?
- Do those words and actions align with your values in life and for parenting? Do they align with what you want to teach your child? How do you know? Here’s the ultimate test — If your child repeated your words and actions in public, would you be glad, proud or ashamed, guilty or angry? If the latter is the case, then it’s time to re-evaluate.
- Consider those current kid behaviors that challenge you in the context of your own childhood. Did you exhibit those behaviors? If so, how did your parents react to you? How did you feel in those moments?
- And did your parents happen to act in a similar challenging way (to those kid behaviors)? If so, how? And when they did act that way, how did you feel at the time? How did you react at the time? Is it similar to your current reactions to your children?
- If you have discovered through your reflections that your words and actions do not align with your values and have uncovered childhood wounds, how can you first address those hurts? How can you deal with them, work to understand them and be compassionate toward the child you were? Consider whether you might need support on the journey toward healing.
- Then, how can you accept that your big feelings – when your child acts out – are reasonable considering your upbringing?
- And then, how can you find ways to learn about dealing with your current feelings in the moments of great challenge? How can you learn what words and actions would align with your values as a parent? And how can you begin to practice new ways of being?
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives studied what we can do and has a helpful set of suggestions. 2 Though many of her examples are related to weight loss and getting physically healthy, they translate well into parenting habits we want to replace. She offers some helpful supports for making desired changes and I offer my parenting spin on the following.
Define your goal. First, she writes that it matters whether you are prevention or promotion-oriented. So consider, do you prefer to stop eating junk foods or do you prefer to start eating healthy foods? It may seem like semantics but the way you frame your goal will help you follow through on it and stay motivated. If you are prevention oriented, your goal may be to stop the yelling. If you are promotion oriented, your goal may focus on promoting calming down strategies when family members are upset.
Learn. An important part of changing patterns is learning how to act differently. We cannot do that without seeking outside resources. Explore sites, articles and books that seem to be in alignment with your values and spend time learning about what has worked for others. In addition, be certain that you include reading about your own child’s developmental milestones. So often, challenging kid behaviors are related to their learning and developmental process so your understanding of those issues will extend your empathy, compassion and patience.
Experiment for a Limited Timeframe. We learn new ways to parent just as we learn other skills in life often, best through trial and error. Why not decide on a plan for how you will react next time that predicable, but undesirable pattern crops up and you get angry at your child? How can you plan to react differently just for one week? What will you do? For example, you could utter aloud “stop,” for your own benefit and your child’s and go inside yourself to calm down and recall your plan before reacting with anger. Ask yourself, “what’s my child’s motivation here? How can I build empathy for their misguided attempts at attention or power? And how can I help them achieve attention or power positively, constructively?” Set short timeframes – even a day or two – and help yourself become successful in trying out new strategies. Keep what works and then…
Create a ritual or routine. Rubin writes about the virtue of starting with a clean slate, meaning finding a time in life that is already a turning point (a move, a new job, a new grade level for your child) and begin your change at that point. But you need not wait for a major life change to get started. You can create one by developing a ritual or establishing a routine. Want to yell less? Perhaps you create a routine of “inside voice level” talk with your whole family. Ask members, “How can we help each other to remember to keep our voices at a reasonable level?” and “What can we do to calm down when we are getting angry at one another?” If you decide that each family member agrees to take five deep breathes in the midst of a conflict, then practice and make it a routine. Each time there’s a disagreement, before it escalates too far, remind each other to take five deep breathes. Do what you can to help yourself remember so that you become consistent with your new routine. This not only supports changing your behavior, it also changes your brain wiring as you act with consistency. And in turn, your children will react accordingly.
Take care. Changing an undesirable pattern takes focus, commitment, persistence and hard work. That means that if you are sleep deprived, you are going to be much less likely to have the capacity to follow through on your new routines or practices. If you are serious about changing a pattern, then you need to get serious about your own self care at the same time. Rubin writes that
It’s helpful to begin with habits that most directly strengthen our self-control: these habits serve as the foundation of all our habits. They protect us from getting so physically taxed or mentally frazzled that we can’t manage ourselves. 2
These habits are ones that help us to sleep, move, eat and drink right and unclutter. It may feel like an onslaught of goals to try and tackle a parenting challenge along with eating healthier. But the truth is one will support the other. The aforementioned areas will help reinforce other patterns you are trying to change by meeting your physical and emotional basic needs allowing you to focus on your goal – your desired behavioral changes.
Schedule it. If it’s in the calendar, it gets done. It’s just that simple. If it’s not in the calendar, it’s not likely to be accomplished. So go ahead and book your practice toward achieving your goal. Maybe you put in your calendar practicing deep breathing for five minutes each day after you drop your child off at school. Maybe you schedule your practice with your child after school to bring some accountability to your practice. I find if I am focused on teaching my son, I am much more committed to the task. Writing down a regular time to practice implementing the new behavior will assist you in following through and actually doing it.
Establish accountability. Certainly you are accountable to that sweet face that is your child and she is what likely incited you to develop a goal in the first place. However it is helpful to establish multiple points of accountability to support you and keep you on track. Rubin writes that
Accountability is a powerful factor in habit formation, and a ubiquitous feature in our lives. If we believe that someone’s watching, we behave differently. 2
So how can you make yourself accountable? One first step is to let all family members know that you are working on yelling less and require their support. If they’ve noticed you’ve yelled that day, you could ask for them to give you that feedback, gently and kindly, by the day’s end. You could agree upon a hand signal to use that will help everyone moderate their voices. I often use a kitchen timer to help me remain on task or remind me to change gears. How can you find a way to make yourself accountable?
Recognize steps. No one person can skip from A to Z, from failing to succeeding, from irate to fully calm. But it’s critical that we recognize our steps along the way to keep up our motivation. We have to see some progress to feel like we can forge ahead. So be realistic about your steps forward. Recognize when you have made changes, even if small, even if for one day. Call it out to family members or write it down in your calendar. “My child came home from school and had a frustration meltdown. I kept calm and didn’t yell.” Those small steps represent your progress toward permanent habit changes. Give yourself credit for each step of the way.
One of my favorite quotes from experts on change is “When change is successful, it is the quality of the little things that makes the final difference.” 3 Becoming a parent helps uncover our identity in a way that no other experience can. If we embrace that fact as an opportunity for greater learning and development, we can become the person and the parent we truly want to be.
- Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out, How a Deeper Self Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. NY: Penguin Group.
- Rubin, G. (2015). Better than Before, Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. London, UK: Two Roads Books.
- Hall, G.E. & Hord, S.M. (2001). Implementing Change, Patterns, Principles and Potholes. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Originally published March 3, 2016.