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The WHY of behavior

January 5, 2013

The other week, I was reading a popular ‘trauma parenting’ blog and came across a comment that really made me stop and think. The article was about helping kids who have challenging behaviors and what parents should do in response to those behavior. The commenter stated that her therapist emphasizes that the WHY of the behavior isn’t important- it’s only important what the parent does in the immediate response to that behavior.

why photo

I have to say, I vehemently disagree with this. The WHY of the behavior is critically important for many reasons.

Understanding the WHY:

  • Helps us shape- in a positive or negative way- our feelings toward the child.

“He just wants to ruin everyone’s good time!” leaves you feeling very differently toward a child than “The unpredictability of the holidays activates his nervous system and leaves him just on the edge of his ‘window’, making out-of-control behavior more likely than we are in our regular routine.” The first thought leaves parents feeling resentful, angry, suspicious, and is more likely to result in a punishment or other “push-away” responses- thus continuing to perpetuate this vicious cycle. The second thought leaves parents feeling exhausted, frustrated, and tired, but also able to tend to the cause of the behavior and hopefully be compassionate toward your child’s difficulty with regulation.

  • Informs how we should respond to the behavior.

Many parents feel like it’s not reasonable to expect them to think logically about negative behavior in the moment. Not only is this a reasonable and appropriate expectation, it is crucial! In fact, I would encourage a parent who cannot pause long enough in the middle of their child’s negative behavior to make their own conscious choice about how to react to first focus on that fact, and not on trying to figure out how to consequence, discipline, or punish their child. Being able to take a pause is critically important and an indication that your nervous system is regulated. We cannot expect to change our child’s behaviors if our own nervous system isn’t regulated.

If we can take that pause, we can consider the many factors that are contributing to our child’s behaviors. Taking this pause helps us to see the reason behind the behavior and then respond to that REASON, and not to the specific behavior. I promise you that only when we can respond to that reason can we truly begin to help change our children’s negative behaviors. When we start to see ‘misbehavior’ as a result of a dysregulated nervous system, we can start to help our child regulate. Understanding that negative behavior is a dysregulated nervous system and NOT your child being a spoiled brat will help you and your child maintain a connection and relationship that is crucial in your child learning how to regulate.

Sometimes kids are just kids. Some ‘misbehavior’ is normal, developmentally appropriate behavior that needs to be responded to with loving structure and firm boundaries (not shaming, punishing, or threatening). Sometimes misbehavior is about learning to regulate. Either way, when we get better at seeing and understanding the WHY we get better at helping our children make better choices and improve their own regulation.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling.  She is the founder of The Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.  

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 30, 2013 2:08 pm

    Of course the Why is important! There are almost always reasons for behaviors; without understanding the why, how can we expect to shape behavior?

    Also, you say, “Many parents feel like it’s not reasonable to expect them to think logically about negative behavior in the moment.”… Thankfully, no one has ever said that to me. So many parents try to rationalize with an emotional child who is not capable of rationalization; why would they not hold themselves to the same standard?

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