Think of behaviour like smoke from a fire we can’t see. The behaviour we see is the smoke. The fire is a brain that has registered threat, and needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. The question isn’t, ‘How do I stop the smoke?’ but, ‘What’s causing the fire, and how can I stop it burning?’
The ‘fire’ is being fuelled by a felt sense of threat. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not safe. It’s about what the brain perceives. For any of us, ‘threat’ might be anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, interruption, waiting, unfairness or loss. ‘Threat’ can be physically driven (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger, possible physical danger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).
Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness).
When big behaviour happens, we often focus on the ‘smoke’ – the behaviour we can see. This would be like noticing the air thick with grey smoke, but rather dealing with the burning building that’s feeding it, we focus on the smoke and try to disappear it with a big fan. This might get rid of the smoke for a short while, but if we haven’t dealt with the burning building, it’s not going to be long before the sky fills grey with smoke again. Something else that might happen by focusing on the smoke rather than the building, is that the big fan we’re using will actually enrage the flames and make the fire hungrier. The answer is to focus on the cause of the problem (the fire / the lack of felt safety), not the effects (the smoke / the behaviour).
Bringing this back to big behaviour, the priority is to support our children back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, and validate. Validation can be with or without words. We can validate the need, ‘Yes, you really wanted to stay in the park. I wish we had more time so you could do that,‘ validate the feeling, ‘I know how angry you are at me. I would be angry too,‘ or if words are annoying for them, just feel what they feel but stay regulated – they will feel you with them.
Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets their nervous systems on fire. When this happens, cycle between holding the boundary, and tending to the relationship. Let the limits be on behaviour, not thoughts or feelings. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. The idea is to be an anchor presence – strong, steady, connected, and surrendering the need to ‘fix’ anything while the emotional storm passes. To do this, you might need to cycle between recalling the boundary and tending to the relationship: Flag the behaviour, ‘It’s ok to be angry. It’s not okay to call me names. I know you know that,’ and then shift focus to relationship, ‘I’m right here,’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’ Think of this as love and leadership together. We can lovingly hold the boundary, and loving them should not be without leadership.
When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’
But holding with love and leadership can be tough sometimes!
When our children are in distress, we might also go into fight or flight. This is a very normal response and happens for an important reason. It happens to make sure our bodies are physiologically ready to protect them, should they actually be in danger. The brain doesn’t care that they aren’t actually in danger. It will ready us, just in case. This means that rather than fighting for them or fleeing with them, our own fight or flight response might see us wanting to fight with them (which is why their anger, frustration, irritation, anxiety might drive the same in us), or flee from them (by walking away for a moment, ignoring). This is not bad parenting. It’s a really normal response from a brain that is readying you for ‘fierce protector’ mode, just in case. The problem isn’t the response, but that there is no actual threat for us to deal with – just a young brain that feels like there is.
Responding to big behaviour with relationship and connection does not mean we are ‘rewarding bad behaviour’. Far from it. What we are actually doing is bringing their brains back to a learning-ready state so they can be open to our guidance and influence. The brain can only learn when it has a felt sense of safety. Supporting our children to feel validated, seen, and loved in the moment brings them back to calm and felt safety. It lets us be guided by the true north of our parenting hearts, and brings us back to what discipline was always meant to be about – to teach, not to punish.