It’s been a stressful few months, and as a family we are all now recovering from a tremendously trying house move. The dust has settled, boxes are unpacked, lost things have been found. And there I found myself talking to a friend about how she manages “aggressive” behaviour. My usually serene and compassionate daughter had all of a sudden started lashing out at her little brother. Was it a developmental thing? I wondered. Had she seen something at nursery? Was she re-testing boundaries?
When I got home, I had a flick through Facebook and came across this photo
And I felt pretty stupid. I, with all my child psychology experience, couldn’t see that my little girl was demonstrating the backlash of all that stress. For months, we’d been preoccupied with phone calls, lawyers, buyers, sellers, packers, and in that time, inevitably, she just hadn’t mattered as much as she usually does.
During the move, my daughter was incredibly tolerant, dealing with moving from the only home she’d ever known, and the stress of not knowing when or whether we would actually move. People commented on how well she was coping. But of course once things were calmer, and she felt safe to do so, she was able to let loose all the emotion she’d been holding on to so tightly over the previous months.
Despite how well we think we can hide our stresses and strains from our children, they are fine-tuned in to the frequency of our moods. Perhaps we’re a bit shorter with our tempers too, less patient, less able to focus on the games which are of the utmost importance to our children’s daily existence. And somehow, they seem absolutely fine. It demonstrates the incredible resilience of children, how hard they work to manage themselves in spite of stress. Although it may not feel like it on the days when the world has collapsed because you cut the sandwich into squares instead of triangles, they are built to make the best of things.
But, just as we are affected by the dark clouds of someone else’s bad mood, our children are even more so. Of course they are. They depend on us for their very survival, so they need to be able to read us clearly and adapt their behaviour in order to achieve the best outcome for themselves. But because they adapt so well, it can be tricky to see when they’re struggling. Little kids, unfortunately, don’t just tell us ‘Wow mum you’re in a real grump today’ or ‘Dad, you haven’t played with me for ages’. Look at what happens when you get on the phone to make an important call – the cup of milk suddenly being poured on the floor can be directly translated as ‘I want you to talk only to me’.
And, when we’re stressed, it can feel too difficult to stop and figure out what’s being communicated. It can be too easy then to scold, to punish, to get exasperated and wonder why your child has suddenly become a problem. And then they feel like a problem, and of course they start acting like one, ad infinitum.
In systemic family therapy, when a family is seen for the first time, they may be asked ‘Who is this a problem for?’ This can come as a surprise to families who are coming to therapy to solve their ‘problem child’. The idea is that no problem exists in a vacuum, caused by an individual. Instead, the individual is seen as existing within the ‘systems’ of their family, school, and wider society. What’s great about this approach is that it means a problem is no-one’s fault. But the system as a whole can work together to solve it.
It’s a good rule of thumb for all of us. When faced with problematic behaviour, what happens if we ask ‘Where’s the problem coming from?’ Kids want to be happy, they want to please us, and they want to make the best of things. In times of strain, instead of being protected (despite our best efforts) children soak up the tension like little sponges. And our job is to figure out the bits that get dripped out.