Did you know that pregnancy actually alters the structure of your brain?
These changes increase your capacity for both empathy and anxiety. This means that when your child cries or moans it is almost physically painful sometimes. It might also explain why I start blubbing every time I watch children performing on stage – even if I don’t know them – I just find it so touching and adorable!
This increased sensitivity makes perfect sense from the perspective of evolution: Babies are born more or less helpless, the presence of adults who attend to their cues of danger or hunger more frequently means that infants were more likely to survive.
What does this mean for you on the daily?
Do you ever find yourself getting ever so slightly annoyed by your child’s whines or screams? Your instincts are telling you to get the sound to stop as quickly as possible. If the cause is apparently something trivial – for example you buttered the toast for them and they wanted to apply their own butter – it is easy to feel your temperature rising even more.
If you notice yourself getting angry, I recommend doing what you can to avoid shouting at your child. This may mean taking a few deep breaths and having a quiet word with yourself or it might mean leaving the room for a few moments. We all lose our temper occasionally (see this post on repair after conflict) but if it happens often it can affect your child’s sense of safety, putting them on high alert and affecting their ability to regulate their emotions.
When you are having a difficult moment with your child, try to look beyond behavior for the underlying cause. As author and psychologist Mona Delahook says, the behaviour may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Here are some common causes of behaviour which we might interpret as naughty, unreasonable or deliberately provocative:
Some of us have a limit to the amount of stimulation we can cope with. Places such as supermarkets with lots of bright colours and sounds can be overwhelming for some children. Limiting the amount of time spent in these kinds of places can help, as can a distracting toy such as a fidget spinner.
Not feeling seen and heard
Children crave your undivided attention and to be deeply known and understood by you. Even just twenty minutes a day of focused attention can go a long way. Being curious about who they are and assuming the best of them.
Experiencing a lack of autonomy
Young people often don’t have a lot of choice around what happens to them. This can sometimes result in frustration. You may need to put your detective hat on to discover the root cause of this issue. Observation and gentle questioning can help.
Having to suppress feelings/impulses
It is very common to children to “act out” or have a melt down after a day at school. Schools are environments where children are often expected to behave in ways which are difficult, especially for younger children, for example sitting quietly or fitting in with social norms. Making time for your child to process their feelings after a day at school through talking, play or creativity can help.
It’s not fair! Have you ever heard these words? Many children have a keen sense of justice. To cultivate a strong relationship with your child it is important to take their concerns seriously and offer sympathy even if you can’t take away the cause of the injustice.
Not feeling safe
Fears and phobias can arise when children are going through a developmental shift, for example, between the ages of four and six when they start to realise that the world isn’t always safe. Again taking their concerns seriously and helping your child to very gently face their fear can help.
This is not an exhaustive list but these are the sorts of experiences that many children have. If you are feeling confused or frustrated by your child’s behaviour it can sometimes help to think back to your own childhood: Did you ever behave in a similar way? If so, what were you thinking or feeling?