August 27, 2019

Can’t or Won’t & Our Kids


As adults, it can be hard to self regulate. It can be hard to reign in our feelings and act maturely and appropriately when we’re feeling super irritated or offended or sad, and we have fully developed brains! Kids, with their developing brains and growing bodies, have an even harder time regulating their emotions.

We have good expectations of our kids to be polite and well behaved, but sometimes, we don’t take into consideration what they’re actually capable of. We can easily forget that kids have limits. Sometimes, they want to disobey or rebel and test the rules. Other times, they get stretched too thin and don’t have the brainpower or energy to do exactly what you’re asking. Sometimes they won’t behave how you’d like; and sometimes they can’t.

The book, “No-Drama Discipline,” addresses this topic well, explaining what is happening in a child’s brain during discipline. It’s important, but tricky, to be able to distinguish between the two. Here’s just a quick look at a few of their ideas to help parents identify what are, “Can’t,” and what are, “Won’t,” behaviors from their kids.

The Why, What & How Questions

Asking yourself these three questions before choosing how to handle your kid’s meltdown in the moment is a quick way to take a step back, give yourself a quick breather, and determine what your child needs.

1. Why are they behaving this way?

Is your child well-rested, or did they have a tough night or miss a nap? Is your child hungry and could use a snack? Has your child been confined to a car seat for several hours and might need to run around and use up some energy? Or, is your child being simply being picky and needs to learn to share with their sister?

We all operate from shorter fuses when we’re hungry, tired or hurting. When your kid is melting down, consider what their general needs are and if those have been met. This doesn’t mean that if your child is tired, they can behave however they’d like… We’ll get to that more in question 3.

2. What lesson do I want to teach right now?

Once you’ve determined what’s going on with your little one, then you can think about what you are wanting to teach them in that moment. Maybe it’s how we treat our friends, or what we do with big anger or frustration, or what it means to make good choices.

3. How can I best teach it?

Once you’ve determined what lesson you want to teach, and you’ve considered what is really going on with your child, then you can decide the, “how.” Like I mentioned earlier, just because your child is hungry or sad doesn’t mean they get a free pass to misbehave. That is not the point of this discipline perspective. Kids still need to learn to regulate even when they’re not at their best. However, it is important to recognize when what you’re asking of them might be too much at that moment. They might need a snack, or a nap, or often, just empathy and comfort from you before they’re able to follow your directions.

If there is a basic need you can meet first, your child will likely settle down enough to hear you. That’s when you can talk to your child about how we treat others or how we handle our frustration, and if it’s warranted, follow through with the consequence. Not only does this give everyone time to slow down and act intentionally rather than reactively, but it is also more likely for your child to understand and learn from the experience if they are operating from some emotional stability.

Being curious about if your child can’t or won’t respond in the way you want is going to allow yourself to be more flexible, and likely, calmer. Having a better understanding of where your child is coming from can help you figure out what’s going to work well for them. Again, sometimes your kids really will just be testing you or misbehaving for kicks, but if they happen to be acting out of sheer exhaustion or being overwhelmed, the discipline process will likely go more smoothly if you approach your child from a place of understanding and care.

This mindset in parenting can sometimes come off as spoiling our kids or as a cop-out to avoid punishments. Those are valid concerns, because neither of those options are good for a child. I think the crucial difference here is how you use question 1 (why) in order to answer question 3 (how). The how, the actual consequence or punishment or active discipline, does still happen! You are just taking more data into account and being more intentional in the process. It’s not a magic fix-all for handling tantrums or bad behavior. Sometimes, your kid still won’t behave, but at least you’re making an informed choice in how to parent and you are acknowledging your child’s very real needs.

If you’d like to learn more about emotional regulation in kids (or adults!) give us a call! We’d love to talk with you about where you’re coming from and what might be helpful moving forwards.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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