Focus On Emotions, Not Behaviours

Sometimes children’s behaviour is a mystery. They know what they are doing isn’t ok and they do it anyway.

As parents/educators, we often judge the behaviour as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Those judgments dictate our response – when they are ‘good’ the child receives praise when they are ‘bad’ they are reprimanded.

While it might seem logical, reprimanding and punishing children for their behaviour actually CREATES MORE of that unwanted behaviour.

Letting Anger Get the Best of Us

Have you ever noticed when a spouse, partner, friend, or family member is angry it’s difficult to remain calm? It’s much easier to react, lash out, and be defensive. Unfortunately, when that happens, the situation usually escalates making the other person angrier and more defensive.

As adults, we learn that if we want to have happy, healthy relationships we need to learn to self-regulate and not take out our emotions on others. Rather than reacting from them, we know that it’s important to recognize them and work through them in healthy ways.

But let’s be honest… sometimes it feels good to know we are right and the other person is wrong. It can feel good when we are feeling angry to express it and take it out on others. Sometimes even yelling feels good. We know it’s not the respectful choice. We know it will have consequences later. Despite knowing all this, there are times when we just don’t care.

Children are No Different

Often times they react to their emotions (like sadness, anger, boredom etc) by behaving in a disrespectful way which in turn triggers an emotion in us. It’s then easy for us to react from the emotion we are feeling which can cause the child’s reaction to intensify or cause them shame.

Depending on how resentful they feel, they may push the situation further by repeating the behaviour or by escalating the situation because it feels good at that moment to get a reaction from you. Or, perhaps the behaviour ends there but returns at another time.

Instead of acknowledging their feelings (and our own) we often react by yelling,  punishing or belittling them or giving a consequence that doesn’t match the behaviour.

Almost Every Behaviour is Driven by Emotions

The behaviours we are seeing from our children/students are because of an emotion they are feeling. A circumstance happens and it triggers an emotion. The emotion becomes very easy to react from because of how overwhelming it feels.

They need to know that the adults in their life understand that the behaviour they are experiencing comes from an emotion that they don’t know how to handle.

We need to take a step back and help them to identify the emotion they are acting from. By acknowledging and validating children’s emotions you show them that you are on their side and that you are compassionate, empathetic, and supportive.

Helping Them Make a Different Choice

Let them know it’s ok to feel a certain way but it’s not ok to react in a disrespectful, hurtful way just because you are feeling an emotion.

When a child is being disrespectful you could say, ‘That looks like a strong feeling. I know what it’s like. It doesn’t feel good in our body. What emotion were you feeling when you made that choice?’

Use the Elephant in the Room poster to help them identify the emotion(s).

And then you could say, ‘You were feeling <name the emotion> and you chose to <name the behaviour>. We all have emotions and it’s ok. It’s what we do with the emotion and how we move through it. What’s something you could to help you move through that emotion in a healthy way?

Use Healthy Ways To Release Emotions to give them options.

Then ask, ‘What would you have chosen to do if you were choosing to act out of being a respectful, kind person?’ This reminds them that their character is the place to make choices from not their emotions. Encourage them to put their new choice into action (examples: apologize, give a compliment, clean up, help someone etc.)

With empathy and kindness, we can help remind them to:

  1. Identify their emotions
  2. Release them in a healthy way
  3. Understand the importance of making choices from their character
  4. Put new choice into action

The more these four steps are repeated, the more they will be able to respond to their tough emotions in a positive way. And of course, the more we model these steps the better we become at teaching our young people to do the same.

Until next time,



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