Understanding your child’s behaviours

Lisa MillardBeacon Family Services

We all want our children to be calm and happy, but in order to achieve that, as parents, we need to acknowledge all of our children’s feelings, sadness included.

Hearing that our children are sad is discomforting and often, for the best of reasons, parents want to fix it for them. However, it’s important that we acknowledge and allow for sadness.

Sadness is a heavy emotion and one we all need help from others to carry. Children often worry that if they tell their parents they are feeling sad, they will disappoint them in some way or, by telling them, make their parents feel sad too. The reality is we all feel sad from time to time, in the same way we feel all feel anger, frustration or joy.

Inside Out Emotions

Pixar’s Inside Out does a brilliant job of helping to explain the cocktail of emotions we all experience. Riley, the main character, is an 11 year old girl who has recently been uprooted from her childhood home in Minnesota to the new family home in San Francisco, California. Through personified emotions, the characters of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust chronicle the way in which Riley responds to the change in her environment and the changes taking place within her.

As a parent, this film can tell us a lot about the role our emotions play in our behaviours and in our children’s behaviours. Clearly the move for Riley is difficult. Once Riley’s parents accept how difficult it is for her, she is able to connect with Sadness and make sense of it, eventually allowing her to feel Joy again.

Fear also appears regularly in the film as it is often the main emotion behind most of our behaviours. Fear is always followed closely by Anger. When Fear is in control of Riley, Fear can be heard panicking and shouting things such as, ‘Did you see that face?! They’re judging us!!!’. When we think about it, this can be seen regularly within our own lives. It’s often Fear who is in the driving seat. The same is true for our children.

In the film Fear is quickly followed by Anger, who never fails to respond with rage and blows the situation up beyond all recognition. Anger often acts as a protector. Think of the number of times you can recognise this in your own home. Your child feels fearful of something – for example, looking silly or stupid, getting something wrong or they may be scared of getting hurt, emotionally or physically – and their response is rage. This can be seen through actions like shouting, screaming, stomping, punching, kicking. This angry response is the child’s way of protecting themselves against hurt. When we stop to wonder what emotion is driving our child’s behaviour, often the behaviour starts to make more sense.   

Bigger emotions

Big and explosive emotions can be difficult

Some behaviours, however, are big, immediate and intense and they come with big emotions. With these big emotions we don’t have the time to work out where they are coming from as someone may get hurt. At those times, do what is necessary to keep everyone safe and wait for a more safe time to work out and discuss what has happened.

In Inside Out, we can see an example of big emotions when Riley’s dad ‘puts his foot down’ and punishes her for an angry outburst. Anger had taken over Riley’s mind’s control centre and, as a result, she couldn’t show her sadness. In the moment, Riley’s dad was overwhelmed with frustration and his own anger which made it impossible for him to see what was really going on with his daughter.

I think most parents can connect with that moment in the film. It makes sense that in order to really see what is going on for our children, we must connect with our own feelings. Sometimes the frustration and anger we feel as parents is underpinned by connecting with our own painful thoughts and feelings. Because some emotions, such as fear, anger, frustration and shame, are tough to deal with we will go to great lengths to avoid them. This is true for children and adults.  

Fear of spreading sadness

There are a number of other emotions explored in the film too. Think of Joy. In one scene Joy draws a circle and tells Sadness to stay inside it. Sadness is a heavy emotion and one that we all need help to carry. Children often worry that if they tell their parents that they are sad, it will disappoint them in some way or make their parents feel sad too.

As Riley is becoming a teenager, she is no longer a happy-go-lucky girl. She is dealing with new, bigger and more complex thoughts, feelings and emotions. It is here that Disgust makes an appearance and stops Riley from speaking to her parents about how she is really feeling. It is empathy from her parents that helps her overcome this.

Why empathy is important in parenting

Empathy is where we really show another person that we hear and understand how it is for them. Brene Brown calls this “feeling with”. Empathy helps our children trust us so they can learn to solve their own problems, initially with their parents help and then on their own. It is how we help them to make sense of the world and become resilient to the challenges they will face. 

Empathy can be hard, but as Brene Brown says, “Often, what makes something better is connection.” We couldn’t agree more. In this clip, Brown gives her thoughts on empathy and shares some thoughts about why it can be so hard.


Understanding your own emotions

In our relationships, our ability to form attachments and connect with others is all about trust. As children develop, they are learning to takes risks in their relationships with their parents. Some children, especially adopted children, have experienced more adversity early in life making it much harder for them to trust and take risks. Attachment is a learning process so these children needs lots of opportunities to experience their sadness and their joy within their relationship with their adopted parent. They have often felt on their own with fear, anger and disgust in control.   

Parents have to connect with their own pain to empathise. This is hard because often as parents we are scared and sometimes our own fears can take over. This is when, as parents, we need our relationships, our support networks and supportive services such as Beacon Family Services to help.    

Also, it’s always worth remembering that when children and parents are hungry and/or tired we can get overwhelmed by our feelings more easily. A good sleep routine and healthy balanced diet form an important foundation in building and maintaining relationships. You can also find a post by hypnotherapist, mindfulness practitioner and founder of Holistic Hatchling, Faye Hatch, containing helpful tips  on how to get your kids to sleep and a FREE sleep meditation for children. 

To help develop your connection with your child we have developed a set of resources, Cards to Help You Connect, which are available from our shop. These have been created and esteemed by Theraplay and DDP practitioners to encourage connection, relationship building and communication. They help parents, professionals and educators build and develop the foundations upon which positive relationships are formed. You can read more about them here.

Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. 

If you are struggling with your child’s behaviour please contact us on info@beaconservices.org.uk to find out how we can support you and your family.

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