Frequently, when a parent brings a child to see a therapist, it’s because the child is exhibiting some kind of undesirable or unpleasant behavior – aggression, impulsivity, defiance, tearfulness, and so on. After dealing with these behaviors day in and day out, parents are understandably feeling exhausted and frustrated by the time they reach out for help. Very often, they report that implementing a behavior chart at home decreased the problem for a short while, until the behavior returned with a vengeance.
So…why don’t they work?
Well, behavior charts assume that the annoying or concerning behavior ITSELF is the problem – and that’s often just not true. Behavior is merely a way of communicating what we – adults and children alike – are feeling and experiencing under the surface. It’s similar to how a sore throat is often a symptom of something deeper, such as a cold or strep. Think of behavior charts as like treating strep throat with cough drops – it may provide some temporary relief, but until the underlying issue is addressed, it’s not going to go away.
(I truly hate to draw that analogy, because child behavior issues are NOT indicative of illness, but hopefully that comparison facilitates understanding.)
Before we go further, know that I’m not knocking charts completely. Pinterest and similar sites offer a plethora of chart ideas for helping small children follow a daily routine, or for keeping family chores and responsibilities organized. Those ideas can be genuinely helpful for families. But when it comes to reducing unwanted behavior, charts fall short.
Take a look at this handy-dandy iceberg that I often whip out in my parent sessions. I wish I could take credit for it, but someone much smarter than I came up with it:
Now, the tip of the iceberg, the portion above the water, represents what we see when a child exhibits a behavior – whether they hit a sibling, refuse to clean their room, or cry with devastation because you told them no more screen time. Behavior charts would have us believe that the only thing that matters is the part that we can see. But when we look below the surface, when we consider all the stuff that we can’t see, there’s much more going on.
Let’s go through an example. Here is what the “lower-iceberg portion” may look like in a child who is clingy and very reluctant to try new things:
- Feeling – insecurity, worry, fear
- Thought – “I must stay next to Mom. This is where I am safe.”
- Belief – I am not strong enough/old enough/brave enough to be without Mom. (I only feel okay when Mom is near.)
- Need – secure, trusting attachment (understanding that I am still safe and loved and cared for even when Mom’s not here)
- Fear – Something bad will happen to me (or to Mom) if we are separated
Another important factor to consider is the presence of trauma. Traumatic events make changes to the brain, and they affect how we process and make sense of our experiences going forward. Assuming we can fix clinginess with a sticker chart, when it was actually triggered by a frightening past event, is doing a disservice to the child.
The truly difficult part in trying to reduce a behavior is that children themselves are not typically aware of what’s “under the surface,” either. When we ask them questions like, “Why do you keep clinging onto Mommy? Why won’t you go play with the other kids?” and their answer is “I don’t know,” we may feel frustrated or helpless with that response, but that’s usually the truth! They don’t know why they’re exhibiting the behavior anymore than we do. These thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are experienced unconsciously.
Now, none of this information changes the fact that unwanted behaviors are still tiresome and embarrassing to deal with. So what can we do to help reduce them?
The first step is empathy. When a child exhibits a behavior, try your hardest to put yourself in their shoes and understand what might have motivated it. If your child hits a younger sibling for taking their toy – what were they probably thinking and feeling in that moment? What was their underlying belief or fear? Taking a second to consider this may help you to respond more calmly, and to address the real issue.
The second step is understanding when it may be time to seek professional help. If you’re feeling at your wits’ end, and the strain is starting to affect your relationship with your child, or the family’s overall quality of life, it may be time to see a therapist. Mental health professionals have been thoroughly trained in child development, psychology, and communication, and can help you figure out what’s going on underneath.