Girl pouting in grass

Understanding your children’s behavior

Parents often find themselves exasperated with the behavior of their children. When their behavior seems defiant or overreactive, parents can feel annoyed, rejected, offended… the list goes on. One key mistake parents often make is interpreting children’s behavior as “I won’t” behavior instead of “I can’t” behavior.

For example, you child has a meltdown about being unable to find a preferred toy. As the parent, you offer choices and possible solutions. Despite your efforts, your child is not soothed. When these strategies are ineffective, parents can become easily frustrated and shift modes due to interpreting the child’s behavior as refusal, as if he or she “won’t” heed your advice. 

Before interpreting children’s behaviors as “I won’t” behavior, parents need to first determine whether or not it is an “I can’t” behavior. 

Is your child…

  • Overtired?
  • Overstimulated?
  • At the tail end of multiple transitions from the day?
  • Hungry?
  • Discouraged from earlier conflicts, reprimands, or corrections?

If you can answer yes to any of these, your child is having an “I can’t” moment. It isn’t that he or she WON’T listen. It is that he or she is not regulated enough in that moment to do so. He or she CAN’T.

When my son was very small, I remember noticing a pattern over time. I deduced that I could run three consecutive errands of getting in and out of his carseat and him remaining pleasant and enjoying the stimulation. Trial and error showed me that adding more than three transitions together caused him to shift moods, become cranky, and not respond to soothing as easily. By paying attention to the patterns, I was able to plan for his capacity for transitions rather than always pushing him beyond his capacity and then having unrealistic expectations of him.

Be a detective in watching for patterns in your children’s behavior. As a mother of 3, I can see individual differences in each of my children’s triggers and behavioral responses when distressed. While we can not always accommodate these individual differences, especially when we have multiple children, we can do our best within reason, and, more than anything, extend abundant grace to our children when they are in the “I can’t” zone. 

If in fact your child is exhibiting “I won’t” behavior that is rooted in defiance, be cautious of power struggles. Offer reasonable choices. Remember that, as adults, we do not do everything the first time someone asks us. And, when we drop the ball, we learn to expect some sort of reasonable consequence in proportion to the oversight. When addressing your child, do you best to do so with respect rather than heated emotion so that you groom your child to respond in kind to you and others over time.

Lastly, give yourself grace as well. You are not the perfect parent, and you will mess up. Just keep trying. Create a climate in which your child can see you calmer than they are so that they have the security of knowing that, when they cannot keep it together, their safe person can… most of the time 🙂

Eileen Dummer
Eileen Dummer MA, LPCC

Eileen earned her Masters of Art degree in Counseling and Psychotherapy from Adler Graduate School in Richfield, MN after obtaining her undergraduate degree in Psychology and French from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Eileen’s professional experience has included assessment and therapeutic intervention work with pediatric and well as adult clients. As a licensed professional clinical counselor, Eileen uses a frame work of family systems and cognitive behavioral therapy. Read More

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