This post is largely based on Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson’s book No Drama Discipline. If you are looking for a more in-depth discussion of this topic or other parenting issues, please read No Drama Discipline and The Whole Brained Child. You can also find Dr. Siegel’s and Dr. Bryson’s videos on Youtube.
I have, what I like to call, a mild form of road rage. When I get behind the wheel I become an impatient, ungracious enforcer of my own rules of the road. If the car in front of me is going under the speed limit (or just too slow for my taste) I criticize and huff at them. When someone accelerates slowly at a newly green light, it takes all my will power not to honk my horn. Multiple issues contribute to the feelings of anger and anxiety that drive my road rage. Part of the anxiety is logistical. What if I hit all red lights? What if parking is difficult when I arrive? However, this “bad behavior” is often an indicator that a stressor has popped up in another area of my life and it’s time to check in with myself. When I’ve had road rage most days during the week, it’s time for me to “chase the why.”
Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson are neurobiologists and clinical psychologists. They research and write about child development, neuroscience, and what children need to live happy, healthy lives. In their book No Drama Discipline, Siegel and Bryson talk about “chasing the why” of a child’s behavior. When a child misbehaves, it is tempting to simply correct the behavior and move on without asking myself or the child what prompted the misguided actions. But when we rush past this question parents and caregivers miss out on the opportunity to understand the inner world of their child. We also miss out on a chance to create self-awareness which allows for changed behavior.
For example, when 4-year-old Sally marches down the hall, arms folded, scowl in place, throwing eye daggers after she was forced to return the toy she had ripped away from her little sister, my immediate reaction can be frustration or dismissiveness. I might comment to myself or aloud to Sally about how unkind and rudely she is acting. Maybe I tell her that she is a big girl and big girls share. Both these strategies might be appropriate. But if I pause and ask myself what this child might be telling me or asking from me, I have an opportunity to connect with Sally and discover a need. Could it be that she needs some of my undivided attention before she dives back into solo play? Does she feel disconnected from me and her little sister, that she has been pushed out of our trio? Is it simply that she feels angry she was asked to share something she loves?
Recognizing her feelings and needs builds trust between me and Sally and strengthens our connection, calming her feelings of anger, fear, and hurt. Once Sally knows that I understand her perspective she is much more receptive when I gently teach her that there are appropriate ways of expressing our difficult feelings. Then we can practice those expressions together.
Taking time to understand the reasons behind our actions can begin when we are children and it is a critical skill as we become self-aware teenagers and adults. As I encounter my own “bad behavior,” my responsibility is to ask what needs and questions are fueling my behavior. My road rage often comes up when I’m feeling out of control or feeling like I’m failing in a specific area. Unknowingly, I am thinking, “If I just get to my destination on time I have succeeded, I’ve been in control of something this week.”
Chasing the why allows me to have compassion for myself, to become more aware of my thoughts and feelings, and to hopefully make a different choice the next time I’m on the road. Instead of giving another driver the stink eye, I can look at my own scared and angry heart and tell myself that I am human and it’s all right to make mistakes or to risk and fail. Now I can relax, take some deep breaths, and enjoy the ride.
As parents and caregivers, we have the privilege of offering this gift to a child who is unable to do the work for themselves. They look to us to help make sense of their behaviors, needs, and emotions. When we reflect these back to them and patiently teach kids and teens to chase the why for themselves, we empower them to become people who are curious about their inner lives and therefore more capable of inner change.
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