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.
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.