A Good Question to Ask When Kids Misbehave (Kids and Strong Emotions Part II)

My son was losing it in the middle of the Super Target. He was whining for a new pair of shoes. When that wish was denied, he demanded a candy bar. And if that was not going to happen, he announced he was planning on watching TV for the rest of the day and I could not stop him. As I continued to say no, he started to growl like a threatened dog, tugging at the side of the shopping cart until it almost fell over. It was awful and embarrassing, and I was prepared to lock him under the stairwell when we got home (Harry Potter style), or, better yet, sell him to the first caravan of traveling gypsies I met in the parking lot. Then it struck me: he and I were actually feeling exactly the same. My son was not acting crazy. He was acting out how I felt! I just had enough of a developed brain to override my desire to tip the cart and weep.

Kids are not that different from us when it comes to emotions. As adults, we are just expected to control ours better. On this day in the store, I was tired and hungry, too. It had been a long day. This was our last errand. I wanted something and could not get it, too, and because of that I was already promising myself a long list of rewards to make up for the misery I’d been through (when I get home, I’m gonna eat cake, drink beer, and stream Flight of the Conchords online for three hours).

I wanted to growl at somebody just as much as he did. The only difference between us was that he lacked the adult skills (and brain development) necessary for containing his feelings. His less than complete brain circuitry meant that his self-control mechanism had shut down.

A wise education professor once told my class, “we all have emotional and behavior disorders…sometimes. The kids in your class just have them more often and can’t control them as well.” This idea that we are not so different is worth remembering the next time our children or students begin acting nuts. When they do, check in with yourself with this question: how much of their behavior is actually an (almost) appropriate response to this situation? A situation like:

  • They’ve been sitting in a car for six hours.
  • They’ve had testing all day and been given no recess.
  • They skipped a meal and got harassed in the halls.
  • They had to sit through a long, boring dinner at a relatives house and now they’re forced to go grocery shopping.

In many of these situations, we would want to throw a fit, too. There are days when I want to put a chair through a window at work, but I know it would cost me my job. There are days I want to knuckle-sandwich the sixteen year old punk in charge at the customer service counter, but I’ve worked enough in the correctional world to never want to go there. In any given situation, if we see inside ourselves similar emotions to those our children or students are acting out, we know that they need compassion, coping resources, a change of scenery–not punishment.

This is especially true in schools. It is hard to know what our students go through before they reach our doors. This demands compassion for the unknown traumas in their lives.

And with my own kids, it’s often so obvious that I’m dumbstruck. When I take a moment to step back from their behavior and check my own feelings, I often find I’m right in tune with them. I feel the same way they do. I’m tired, stressed, bored, hungry, and it’s only my adult sense of shame that keeps me from lying down in the middle of the candy aisles to kick and scream with them.

In fact, a lot of the time it is my fault! I’m the one who booked the flight with two lay-overs (never again), brought my kids to that late night, formal sit-down wedding (never again), decided we could drive all the way from Memphis to Austin in one day (never again).

Yes, as parents and teachers we need to handle bad behavior. There should be consequences. But before we unleash our wrath, it is always worth asking the question: How much of this behavior is actually a fairly appropriate response to this situation? Do I feel similar emotions, which I’m just containing a little better? This will help us be more compassionate in the moment. Maybe they’ll still kick and scream, and maybe all you can do is tell them you feel the same while modeling a more appropriate response.

And maybe that candy bar is just what the kid needs.


This is a three part series on emotions and kids. Next week I’ll go into what happens in kids’ brains when they lose it and how a few mindful exercises can help them better learn to handle strong feelings. Subscribe if you don’t want to miss it. Last week I wrote about the practice of solidity, which can really help in these situations where kids are losing it (and we are about to lose it). Here’s a short video I made of the solidity meditation I use before my own work with kids at the detention center. It helps me remain a solid presence in a chaotic environment…some of the time.


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