Sally, Bobby, and Symptoms and Causes

Shortly after Bobby was born, Sally began to act out. Oh, she regarded Bobby with adoration, but not so when it came to Sean and I. Sally suddenly became less cooperative and even lashed out physically once or twice.

In response, I did what I always try to do when it comes to parenting: I looked not just at the symptoms but instead sought to find the root cause of the symptoms. In this case, that was easy. Bobby took up time and energy that Sally was used to getting, and mommy and daddy were suddenly less ready to drop everything and play a game or read a book. Sally felt a bit displaced, and it’s no wonder she responded by acting out.

I could have responded by simply addressing the symptoms, and punishing Sally for acting out. I could have doubled down on the importance of her obeying what we said, and made and enforced more rules to control her behavior.

But that would have just pushed her away from me, and it wouldn’t have addressed the actual root of her misbehavior.

In fact I could go a step further – was Sally’s acting out really “misbehavior”? She was having natural feelings, and being only in preschool, she was responding to those feelings the only way she knew how. Her behavior was actually completely rational, at her level.

If I responded to Sally’s acting out by ignoring what was causing her to act out, I would not only push her away from me but leave underlying problems unaddressed – and fail to help her learn new communication and emotional skills while I was at it.

And so, as you might expect, Sean and I responded by talking with Sally about the changes in our family, by giving her more one on one time with both of us, and by involving Sally more in Bobby’s care. Within a few days, things righted themselves and Sally was back to normal, and once again reassured in her position in our family and in her possession of our love.

This whole symptoms and causes thing, though, is something I use with Sally on a daily basis. If she begins to whine, or if she throws a tantrum, or if she responds to a request with anger, I ask myself why. I’ve come to realize that responding harshly, or by laying down the law, or with anger only makes the situation worse rather than addressing the root problem – perhaps she’s tired, or she hasn’t gotten enough mommy time, or she’s frustrated at something that happened earlier in the day.

Responding this way isn’t always easy, of course, because its when Sally is at her most belligerent that I least want to have anything to do with her. In order to respond appropriately I have to take a deep breath myself, even as I, in most cases, start by asking Sally to do the same.

Finally, I would simply mention something I’ve mentioned before – looking for the cause of Sally’s actions rather than simply responding to her actions involves seeing the problem as something outside of us, something we can solve together, rather than seeing Sally as the problem. This sort of approach, where we both work together to fix a problem, is not only something I have found useful in my dealings with her and in my relationship with Sean, it’s also a skill I want to help Sally develop.

The way I see it, teaching Sally good relationship skills and communication skills, along with the ability to respond appropriately to and handle her emotions, is way more important and valuable than simply getting her to come when called, sit when told, and keep quiet when asked.

On Being a Prodigal
What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
The Lesbian Duplex 12: An Open Thread
When We Expect More of Our Children than of Ourselves
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • KarenH

    My son will be 30 in September, so it’s been a while since I pulled out the parenting techniques for preschoolers, but by and large, I agree with you. One thing I remember from the message board Mommy Wars is that those who advocated a more Boss/Minion relationship between parent and child often claimed that “But you have to teach them instant obedience because what if there’s an emergency and she MUST obey????”

    My answer to this was, “With John, I would simply tell him, ‘John, I need you to do [whatever], and right now. I can’t explain why right this minute; I need you to trust me and do it. I promise I’ll explain later.” And then I always made sure I explained later. (and I also thanked and praised him for doing what I asked.) John was always an incredibly rational, thinking child. If a request appeared to be arbitrary, he’d dig his heels in. But if you explained WHY and it made sense to him, he was as easy going as any child I’ve ever known. And you didn’t always have to explain why BEFORE, either. For instance once he didn’t want to get in the car seat and asked “Why do I *always* have to sit in the car seat????” And I simply said, “Well, get in and I’ll explain while I buckle you in.”

    And it was because I had always been a trusted source for explanations that made sense to him, he learned to trust me and put faith in my answer, even before he understood. So for those times when you really DO need Sally to “come when she’s called.” you’re building a wonderful foundation of trust with her. One that will support you saying, “I need you to trust me; I’ll explain later.”

  • Camilla

    With my older son, the problem is that once he’s symptomatically in a funk, it’s really hard to get him to cheer up enough to enjoy (and get what he needs out of) the mommy or daddy time. And playing board games or doing puzzles, with a kid who’s determined to push my buttons while doing it, is just painful. My solution has usually involved hiring a babysitter or mother’s helper to take him outdoors and get the edge off him, first.
    If you watch enough Dog Whisperer, you’ll notice that he almost always prescribes much more exercise for the dog, straight away – I suspect that that’s a big part of the dramatic recoveries.

  • smrnda

    Working with young kids I was taught about the same thing; that ‘difficult’ behaviors from children are often just their way of expressing their needs or feelings, and that given that kids are young, they haven’t learned to express their needs and feelings as well as adults do. Also, they haven’t yet figured out that if they express what they feel directly, they will be listened to – they’re still kind of figuring out whether or not the world will listen or not.

    This kind of reminds me of one incident I had with a girl I was around a lot at the day care where I worked. All of a sudden, she seemed really mad at me and I was one of the adults she actually liked, What I realized was that I had picked up something she was reaching for while I was cleaning (and cleaning with lots of kids is more ‘grab everything in sight as fast as you can.’) If I hadn’t been taught to look into why kids felt how they did or did what they did, I’d have been viewing her as ‘difficult’ when the situation was (without knowing it) because of something I did.

    All said, authoritarian child-rearing methods don’t encourage compassion or empathy. They may encourage a ‘smile and pretend to be happy no matter what is going on,’ but I don’t think it leads to any genuine good.

  • Liz

    I LOVE this, and your blog, but I had a question. Is there any way you can include some sort of picture with your posts? I’m building a pinterest board with good articles/blog posts on attachment parenting (to help when my husband acts like I’m nuts), but I can’t pin things like this with no picture.

    • Libby Anne

      How’s that? Since I’m blogging anonymously and all, it’ll have to be stock photos. :-P

      • Liz

        Thanks! The problem usually is that even on the ones with pictures, for some reason the pictures don’t show when you go to the full article, which seems weird. But this shows up perfect. Appreciate it a bunch!

      • Libby Anne

        I generally haven’t used pictures in my posts because it’s simpler not to. But when I rearranged things this week, I realized how cool it looks on the main page to have a picture with each article excerpt. So, I’ve started setting a “featured image” for each article, meaning it shows up with the excerpt on the main page, but isn’t in the actual post – and it’s simpler than inserting the image into the post. I’ll try to change that with the parenting posts, at least!

  • Joy

    Just wait until he starts stealing her toys…it never ends when it’s between the two of them, AUGH. I don’t think smaller families necessarily have fewer sibling fights than larger ones.

  • Rilian

    This reminds me of when one of my cousins started getting whiny, and I knew it was because she was trying to buckle her seatbelt and she was frustrated that she couldn’t do it. Then her dad came and yelled at her for undoing the seatbelt and when she cried even more, he said that she was “just tired”. I tried to explain what had happened but he didn’t believe me. It’s like he wants her to just sit still like a doll when he’s not around.

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