For Good Mental Health & Peace, Develop Positive Identity, Not Shame

It’s often said that children’s negative or challenging behaviors occur due to one of two general reasons: either the child is hoping to get something he/she wants, or is hoping to avoid something he/she doesn’t want.

Understanding human behavior at its deepest core level increases our insights into the deepest relationship dynamics within ourselves, our families, and our communities. As we increase levels of patience and compassion for children, other adults and our own selves, we broaden our collective skills sets for increasing harmony, maturity, and responsibility in our family, school, and community cultures.

The benefits to increasing psychological literacy extend way beyond childhood; specific skill sets help root children in a lifetime of peace and empowerment.

That said, I’ve observed that it is very often overlooked that when a child becomes upset, it is very often because not only is he not doing things his way, but also because at this deepest core level he is not feeling the homeostasis or balance within himself that he needs to in order to feel his best – his most safe self.

This is no small thing. Anyone who knows me knows that I view emotional safety as the overarching developmental goal of childhood. I don’t think we need empirical research to prove this assertion. Feeling safe includes being wholly accepted for who we are, what we feel, what and whom we like, and how we express who we are. Emotional safety is the essential building block of self worth, self-respect, and personal pride which make up a child’s idea of who he/she is. This counters shame development which highly factors into capacities for self-regulation.

*Let us also note that pervasive shame creates lack of self-acceptance, which when is not addressed in a healthy way through therapy – if not prevention – becomes projected onto others, resulting in unacceptance, judgment, intolerance of, and potential violence toward others. This is why psychological literacy is imperative for establishing a global culture of peace.*

Emotional safety is aligned with feeling internally balanced. A child’s lack of internal balance can occur for many reasons. In this article I will share a story about how the specific ways we relate to children impact their internal balance, emotional safety, and therefore, behavior. The story shows why a child’s external environment of relationships (a pairing or group of caregivers relating to/working with the child) needs to be balanced in order to help him/her feel safe, and if it is not, how to use a few specific steps suggested here to begin to increase that external “relationship” balance, which so greatly factors into behavioral compliance.

*Please note: In this, as in all of what I write, the words that I use are not used in judgment, but to make specific the best examples for creating healthy vs. unhealthy relationships. We all do the best we can with the skills and awareness we have at any given time. Also please note that I do not claim to be a parenting expert; I am a therapist. I specialize in relationships, and in early childhood holistic mental health and self-regulation.

Here’s the story. I was asked to consult on a common problem for many families and classrooms, in which two caregivers with very different relating styles are attempting to handle a three-year old boy whose behaviors are “off the hook”. Noncompliance, aggression, and attention-seeking behaviors are the norm on any given day, at any given time. 
The first, most apparent problem as I saw it, was that the two caregivers were relating to him in very different ways. If I could bring insight into this imbalance to both caregivers, and if they both began using the same methods of relating to the child, we’d likely have more success at helping him to feel more safe and secure in context of this “continuity of care”, meaning: he’d likely feel safer because there would be more consistency in how he was being treated and ‘handled’.

Working from the perspective, then, of emotional safety being the overarching developmental goal of childhood allows us to recognize that the safer this boy feels as himself, in his body, within his environment, the less likely he would be to act out, since his acting out is a call for an intervention to help him get what he needs: an internal sense of balance and security the adults could provide by themselves being balanced and consistent in how they relate to him – step one.

In our story, one caregiver has an inconsistent approach and inconsistent emotions she displays to the boy. She seems uncertain of what to do much of the time. During one observation, when Adam (not the child’s real name) is noncompliant she attempts to redirect him from across the room (“Adam, put the books back on the shelves, okay?”). He does not listen and in fact begins throwing books her way. The caregiver is exhausted from dealing with him, so she ignores him and begins reading a story to another child on the floor. (“He doesn’t listen anyway, so what’s the use”, she tells me.) Next, Adam is on the couch behind her dropping heavier and heavier items onto her head. Finally she yells at him out of frustration and he acts up more than before: throwing more items across the room, running, and knocking objects around.

Enter the second caregiver. She is confident, consistent, firm and warm with the children. She addresses any issues by approaching the child personally and kneeling to their level, speaking eye-to-eye with them, being sure to use non-shaming tones and words. She uses inquiry and humor, sets limits and uses role modeling to teach the skills the child has not yet developed. Her own consistent, balanced, respectful state of being and relating -, which translates into her perception, approach and management of him – is what Adam needs to feel safe; he trusts that she will continue to be balanced and safe for him. So it is easier – far easier for him to have the willingness to comply with her directives when he has this trusting relationship that makes him feel secure – read: emotionally safe.

Adam’s non-compliance, aggression and attention-seeking behaviors are lessened at the moment due to this method of engaging which this caregiver provides. But because this method is not used by the first caregiver also, Adam continues to act out in this environment overall. The adults’ methods of perception, approach, and management of children are not in synch at all, and Adam’s behaviors are, to a significant degree in this environment, the outcomes of that inconsistency.

What went on for Adam is true for many children: his negative behaviors are signaling that he is not feeling the balance in his internal world – within himself, in large part because his first caregiver does not have the skills set to be the external source of balance in how she relates to him.

Being a balanced caregiver is one of the pieces to helping him acquire this internal balance. This aspect of the child’s relationships falls under the domain of “Attachments/Relationships”, one of nine domains of health and well-being requiring balance – all prerequisites to self-regulation.

So how to understand a more systematic approach to providing the balanced attachment the Adams of the world are seeking? For starters, let’s break the lesson of this scenario down into what we may call “Engagement vs. Redirection”. We can define redirection as a simple, short statement of what you want a child to do differently. You’re basically saying, “Put the books on the shelves; it’s time to ______fill in the blank here.” Engaging a child requires more time and effort, and is a mechanism for developing a positive emotional attachment with a child based upon mutual warmth, respect, and trust. It occurs over time, and is the foundation for a healthy relationship. Once this relationship is developed, redirection can be used more successfully. (Note: inherent in this dynamic of compliance is our need to be sensitive to the different types of children’s needs, including their types of intelligence and transition needs. See here, here, and here for ideas on this subject.)

When we recognize our own need to be a more balanced caregiver, we can use the following “Adam” example to help us develop a personalized system for our perception, approach and management of his behavior.

1.) We approach him personally and Engage – We walk over to where the child is and get down to his level, calmly and respectfully address what he is doing, feeling, his desires, and/or what we think his body needs (to express energy, for example).

2.) We know two goals. – Our “activity goal”: to get Adam to pick up the books from the floor and put them back on the shelves, (We’re setting limits here) and our “relationship goal”: to develop a better relationship with him (i.e.: a better attachment to him). This means we obviously avoid saying anything that will put him on the defensive and not want to talk with us, like “What’s the matter (with you)? Why can’t you listen like the others?” Sometimes we unwittingly communicate with anger and frustration and this can set a child off, so even though we all know this, it’s worth repeating that it pays to be in check of how we present ourselves.

To make or improve that emotional connection, we try engaging him in a pleasant conversation about his activity, and also address how he seems to be feeling, and then set limits.

Primarily we show him that we are interested in him and that he matters. We do this  by being intentional in our approach. When I do this I kneel down, look in the child’s eyes and with patience and warmth I’ll say something like, “Hey Adam, I see you’ve been looking at some books. Which are the ones you like best?”

 The goal of using these intentional specific steps here is to help the child establish one of two different schemas –or concepts- for who he believes himself to be. The emotions of warmth related to feeling respected, interesting to someone, of being liked – these help to develop his emotional schema for his self-concept. In other words, the emotions he is feeling translate to unconscious messages of “I am of interest to this person/respected by her/worthy of being listened to. She enjoys me/likes me, so I must be of value; therefore, I must be good for her to relate to me this way.”

Think about it. What do you feel and perhaps unconsciously process in a similar adult situation? Can you imagine it for a very small child? How they come to develop self-pride or shame? I am sharing these inferences in order that the reader understand the idea of how an emotional schema for “I am liked. I am wanted. I am good.” can be developed and nurtured. I cannot overstate this importance.

So there are many things going on here within Adam’s awareness, however conscious or unconscious – and they are affecting the way he views himself by virtue of how we are viewing him. Therefore they are affecting the way he feels about himself, and us. We are showing him respect by approaching him, getting to his level, and making kind eye contact. We are not accusing him, rather we are inquiring as to what he is doing and what he likes. This makes him feel good, and puts him at ease, and this is the right track.

3.) Identify things about him. – We say, “Out of all these books, which are your three favorite? Oh, one about boats, one about trains, and one about flying in a plane! You really like things that move, don’t you?” By asking Adam to show us his favorite books we continue to create a sense in him that what he likes matters to us and this really helps him begin to feel a positive emotional connection/attachment to us. In Adam’s mind, because what he likes matters to us, he must matter to us, and this message is no small thing.

In pointing out that he likes things that move, we are further helping him to see himself through the lens of what he likes, and this helps to shape the idea – or cognitive schema – he has for who he is. He is now considering himself as someone who likes things that move. This may not seem like such a big deal to us, but to a three year old, it’s the very building up of his self-concept. He’s internalizing a more cognitive validation of who he is, and this, along with the building up of his positive emotional schema, helps him gain a clearer picture of himself as a likable, respected, interesting person in the world which makes him feel very good indeed.

4.) Go for the activity goal. – By investing time into inquiring about Adam as a person, we began to make our relationship goal. If that feels like a solid foundation –and it is likely to, especially over time, then we go for the activity (clean up) goal: “Let’s put these three books over here and bring them to circle time so we can show our friends what you like. But first, let’s get the rest of these books on the shelf.” We don’t ask him; we tell him. If he begins to melt down, we provide more choices to help him gain a sense of control: “Do you want to put the books back first, or take your books to the circle area first?” “Do you want to get the other kids together for circle when we’re finished, or should I do it?” Here we are skillfully attempting to expand that positive connection which ideally will both lead us to the next activity, and gain Adam’s compliance with returning the books to the shelves in the meantime.

So that is the goal, process, and ideal result of “engaging” a child. Redirecting a child, say, from across the room, when we do not have a warm, trusting, and in his eyes – safe relationship with him, is less likely to produce compliance, although some children comply out of fear. Threatening, manipulating, shaming, or otherwise instilling fear to get a child to do what is wanted may work in some cases, but we know it is not the foundation for a truly safe, warm and loving relationship. Do we want our kids to use those kinds of tactics on themselves or with others? Of course not, because this is where bullying can start, and other maladaptive ways of relating.

Remember that our goal is to help the child develop “right relationship” with himself – this is the prerequisite for developing healthy relationships with others. This is the prerequisite for establishing peace in the world.

As we use warmth, humor, and inquiry as a process of engagement, we teach the child to be warm, easygoing, and engaging with himself and his peers.

In addition to using engagement to develop healthy emotional bonds with our child, we need to be mindful of setting realistic limits based on realistic expectations of his age and developmental stage. We should not expect, for example, two and three year olds to sit for however many minutes of circle time, or even older children if they are bored. Recognizing each child’s unique intelligence, needs, and skills sets is key here.

The other piece is being consistent with how we handle the part when they don’t comply – our “follow-through”.

Also, we want to be present for the child and really listen to him, really see him, and we want to keep our own emotional dramas if we have them out of the equation and be consistent in our manner so the child learns to trust us. This requires our own ongoing commitment to being vulnerable to objective, kind, non judgmental self-insight.

There is much more to discuss, but these are foundational factors to “being the balance” for a child.

Denise Durkin, M.A. Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant & Self-Regulation Specialist

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