How to help a child who is acting out by setting clear, kind limits and offering positive guidance.
Walking out of school, I noticed my son had an envelope in his hand. As he handed it to me with a shy but determined smile he said: “Mom, this is for you. I wrote you an an apology letter. I was so angry and I am really, really sorry for what I said this morning.”
Just a few hours earlier we had had an unusually challenging morning. Where normally everyone follows a routine, we chat over breakfast and get ready for school and work without much fuss, this morning was so different. It was tense and so very trying. There was eye rolling, frowns and demands. It all culminated in an ugly, disconnected argument.
Emotions ran high.
Anger showed up big time for my son.
Words rattled many feelings.
Growing up and parenting principles clashed.
Staying calm and accepting the emotional storm was tough.
Acting Out Can Be Seen as Request for Guidance
When children act out it can be hard to recognize it as a request for connection and guidance. But underneath the tears, the defiance, the pulling away is a child that needs love, validation and guidance. What helps a child stop acting out and choose different behaviors is a sense of safety, understanding and our connection with them.
Children are more likely to act out when they are feeling:
It is our kindness and faith in the child’s ability to do better that can draw them out of the powerlessness, worry or frustrations that is fueling the acting out behavior.
The process is not always easy, I recognize that. On that morning, to be honest, I struggled. I even imagined myself shouting “HOW DARE YOU!!!” I remember feeling so much frustration burning in my hands and throat. It took everything I had to breathe deeply, and to search for all the calm I could ever possibly offer my son. He was acting out and It would be pointless to join him.
I searched for anything that would help me stay present. Words from Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids popped up in my mind:
“It’s not an emergency….Let’s all stay calm here.”
And then words from Jane Nelsen, D.Ed. author of the Positive Discipline did as well:
“Have faith in your child so they can have faith in themselves.”
So as hard as it was, I stayed calm. I kept my limits clear. I chose to have faith in my child. To trust that this would pass and that everything we had experienced together on up to this moment from making amends, to learning responsibility, to understanding emotions and repairing relationships would show up when the time was right.
Setting calm, clear, helpful limits with kindness on this morning went something like this:
“You are not liking what I am saying to you at all, I get that. Speaking to me like this doesn’t help you. I love you and I am willing to hear you out after school to discuss this calmly. Now, It’s time to get ready for school.”
“Yes mom, I really don’t like what you are saying. It makes no sense to me. Ok, let’s talk later.” was his answer and soon he was ready for school.
Children really need a model for self-regulation to learn how to confront life’s frustrations and disappointments without blowing up. When emotions get jumbled, children need someone to help them. To guide them into a space where it’s OKAY to be angry, without being hurtful. A space where whatever they feel is accepted, and how they behave is met with not only limits and corrections, but also with empathy.
When children are acting out, it also helps to remember that resisting limits and testing boundaries is part of growing up: The instinct to resist and oppose is in all of us and has important work to do in making sure we stay close to those we are attached to. – Deborah MacNamara, PhD author of Rest Play Grow.
When children act out, are defiant, annoying, hurtful they are in need of connection and guidance. While they may ask for what they need in mistaken or negative ways, the need is legitimate and we can help.
When a child acts out, reach out:
Listen to the feelings: Children act out when they have pent up emotions, being willing to stay present and listen to them can help them calm again.It’s not always straight forward, sometimes children will have a big tantrum, a meltdown or become angry before calming down. Listening does not spoil the child or reward bad behavior. Instead, it helps them feel understood, valued and cared for. As we model self-regulation the child will learn to do this as they grow.
Limit the behavior: State your limits clearly and kindly. Aim to stop behaviors and create a safe space for the child. “I will not let you hit” or “I will not let you throw things.” “I am keeping you safe by keeping you here, close to me.” or “Please find a way to be mad without being mean.” “You asked, I answered. We are not going to keep going in circles.”
Offer guidance: Depending on the circumstances you will need to adjust the kind of guidance you offer your child. Some children like to calm down on their own in a calming corner. Toddlers and preschoolers tend to do well with a Time in. Older children may like to know that you are available to talk when they are calmer “We can discuss after we all take a 5 minute break.” If the acting out is about lack of cooperation, try to find ways to break the task into smaller, more actionable requests, offer limited choices or a way to work together.
Make time to reconnect: Sometimes acting out can pass quickly with attentive limits and guidance. Other times the child will need time to settle, reflect and only then be ready to choose better behavior. Regardless of how the situation plays out, making time to check in with each other and reconnect and reflect is always helpful. This might sound like: “This was tough for you, but you got through it. I appreciate your apology” or “You were really upset, I’m glad we could talk about it.”
Sticking to this positive approach has an initial time investment, but it means that over time, children can learn to recognize their emotions and needs and can express them more clearly. It also means that you remain in a position to offer trusted guidance and safety, even when things are not going so well.
Back to the school exit, as I took the envelope, I felt a sense of gratitude. Because I had trusted my son and I had set clear limits without taking away his right to feel angry. This emotional space combined with sending him off to school without a punitive consequence for his words allowed him to process and regulate his own choices. He calmed down. He realized his mistake. He chose to move on with the morning routine. Later, he wrote a letter of apology, completely unprompted. With kind, sweet, respectful, sincere words. We had an honest conversation that afternoon that helped us understand each other’s point of view better.
There is incredible power in choosing to parent with the intent to connect and guide. Children make mistakes, loads of them. We do as well. The aim of parenting doesn’t have to be to control behaviors (it doesn’t work anyways.) We do hold tremendous potential to influence our children, to pave the way for them to understand themselves and their choices better.
Strive to teach and guide when the moments present themselves.
Help your child feel better even when they are at their very worst.
If your child is acting out, reach out: Listen, Love. Guide.