Parenting our kids through challenging behaviors like lying, stealing, tantrums, or defiance can be exhausting and frustrating. When stressed, it’s hard to manage our emotions and theirs simultaneously. The challenge then can lead to triggering and being triggered by our kids.

What is the Priority?

Siblings squabble. They beg for treats every time you take them to the grocery store. Legos and sneakers are abandoned all over the family room, even after you asked for a clean-up six times! We all know that it’s just part of raising kids. We often forget that their challenging behaviors come from the deep frustration our kids are experiencing. Their behaviors are communication, and it’s our job to determine the stress points under that behavior.

We can teach them to identify their underlying needs and advocate for themselves in healthier ways if we clarify our priority. Dr. Tripp Ake boiled the importance down nicely to one key question in the podcast, “How to Avoid Triggering and Being Triggered by Our Kids:”

How can I improve my child’s behavior while also making sure my child feels seen, cherished, and safe in my care?

When we feel anxious and overwhelmed by our child’s triggering behaviors, we can pause to ask this question. This pause is a self-regulation tool that needs to be practiced. So give yourself grace as you learn how to do it. Ease into this habit of self-reflection by asking yourself this question in quiet, calm moments. You will become familiar with how the pause feels. Your introspection muscles can grow before you must use them in more challenging moments.

This question aims to identify what behaviors we want to change and what’s important to us about making that change. Establishing felt safety for our kids is foundational to allowing them to develop healthier habits and behaviors.

2 Essential Tips to Avoid Triggering and Being Triggered by Your Kids

Here are two essential tips to help you focus on changing their behavior and how you want that change to develop. We say “develop” because behavioral change requires plenty of repetition, support, and second chances to grow new “brain grooves” and healthier habits.

Tip #1: Praise up the behaviors you want.

To help your child understand which behaviors you want to grow in them, be a detective for the seeds of it that already exist in their behaviors. Even if you feel like you are focusing on the tiniest thing, target positive attention on the little sprouted seed. Go out of your way to notice positive behaviors – even if it’s only a tiny part of the behavior. We’ve got a few practical ideas to help you implement this tip:

  • Be specific with your praise of the positive behaviors. “James, I loved the polite manners you showed to Mrs. Smith when you dropped her package off at her door.”
  • There’s no such thing as praising your child too much. Shoot for a goal of 6 praises per one correction daily.
  • Call out any progress you see your child making toward that behavior. “Sally, you did a great job trying to negotiate with your brother about cleaning the playroom. I know it’s hard to keep your cool when he’s not working as hard as you feel you are.”
  • Model the positive behaviors you want to see. Take a ten-count before you call out your child’s unacceptable reactions.
  • Narrate your child’s behaviors with positive input on the details of what goes into the behavior you want to see. “I see you working hard to breathe deeply four times before you answer your brother. I know that means you’ve been practicing. Thank you. Now how can I help?”
  • Have a goal in mind so you can define their progress toward that goal. Use positive affirmations on the way toward the goal. “I’ve seen how hard you are working on controlling angry words to be able to ask for what you need. You counted to ten three times yesterday when I know it was not easy to stick to. I’m proud of you.”

Everyone Experiences Stress, a resource for families and professionals.

Tip #2: Ignore the ignorable behaviors.

Creating positive connections and attention to preferred behaviors gives us space to ignore the things we can release. The adage, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” is particularly apt in this conversation: what we pay attention to will increase!

We get it. We acknowledge that it’s not easy to just “let it go,” is it? How do you ignore challenging behaviors? Which behaviors do you ignore? Here are a few suggestions to help you choose what to ignore and how:

  • Observe your child’s part in family dynamics. Look for spots to “stop the cycle.” This might could be pre-emptive interruptions between siblings to head a squabble off. It might also mean keeping your child close for several days while you identify the lead-up to his most challenging behaviors. Again, it’s going to require some detective work in many cases.
  • Overlook and tiptoe past behaviors that are slightly annoying. Does your child need to fill quiet spaces with chatter and questions? Calmly answer one or two and then occupy yourself in another room before you feel your annoyance rising.
  • Avoid negative attention to undesirable behaviors. Remember that even negative attention is a payoff for your child.
  • Consider the timing of the child’s behavior. Re-direct the behavior by meeting the need without attending to the behavior. “Here’s a cheese stick and a glass of ice water. I think you must be feeling empty right now.”
  • Even when negative behavior occurs, try to pick one positive action to spotlight. Once you are sure everyone is safe, you can ignore the challenging aspects of what is happening. For example, “I can tell you are feeling very anxious right now. I appreciate that you used nice words to ask for a snack. Thank you.”
  • Think to yourself, “Is this childish or willful behavior?” Exercise effort to let childish activity go by the wayside. Remember, our kids who have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect often act younger than their chronological age. Be gracious with this assessment, especially in the heat of the moment.

We Lead the Way to New Behaviors

Our kids need to know that they can look to us for how to craft new habits and behaviors. It can be scary for our kids to feel out of control and stressed by what they are feeling inside.

We’ve said it many times before. When helping lead a child toward healing, we must be willing to seek our own healing. When we struggle and feel triggered by our child’s behaviors, we serve our whole family well by examining why. We can lead them to healthy behaviors if we set an example for our kids of the work needed to heal. Sometimes we need help to heal, and we recommend that parents consider a counselor or therapist to help that process.

A significant part of our healing process is regular self-care. Engaging in activities that fill us with joy and remind us of our purpose gives us a fresh perspective. We can pour into them because we’ve refueled ourselves. Self-care also models for our kids that we see our worth and value and choose to nurture it. That message is a powerful tool for our kids to learn that we deeply value them. And sets the stage for helping them learn new behaviors.

Have you thought about how you are triggering your child? Do you recognize how your child’s behaviors trigger you? Tell us about it in the comments!

Image Credits: Liza Summer; Victoria Borodinova; cottonbro