3 Key Questions To Ask When Your Child Is Acting Out

Often times, when our children are acting out, misbehaving, or out of control, we can fall into the mode of thinking they are just being bad. But there’s way more happening with them than we often understand. How do you gain the right perspective in those heated moments?

I know how this goes for most of you. You’re parenting a child who routinely acts out and sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason (or so it seems). They act like they have no control of their little bodies in public places. They’re aggressive toward other siblings (and it’s usually when you’re driving 75 miles an hour down an expressway). They meltdown over, what seems to be, meaningless things. They pester others in your household until everyone is out of control and severely dis-regulated. You name it!

Yep…been there many, many times in the past (and present to be perfectly honest). Parenting kiddos from hard places is no easy task. In fact, it’s just plain exhausting at times. Between trying to understand what is going on with your child, helping them (and you) re-regulate on the daily, and making sure your other kids are doing okay, this is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest at times.

What I’ve come to fully understand over the past 5 years, in particular, is that, while my child may be acting out or severely misbehaving, it’s not his or her fault. Yes, I know, they are doing bad stuff….but this doesn’t mean they are bad kids. Their behavior is a product of the trauma they’ve gone through in the past….even the child who’s been in your home since he or she was first born, or very young.

But…in the heat of the moment, when all hell is breaking loose and they are freaking out…this is a hard truth to remember. Even for me and I’ve been doing this for almost 2 decades now. I fail at keeping the reality of my children’s past trauma in front of their present behavior all the time. So we began asking ourselves 3 simple questions (in the heated moments) to keep our perspective in the right place. Sometimes we’ve asked all 3, other times, just 1 or 2 depending on the situation at hand. While there are many, many questions you could ask, these 3 are what we consider to be, the simplest way to keep the truth of what is happening with your child when it’s happening with your child at the forefront of your mind. And when you do, that can drastically change how you approach your child, and the outcome of the tense moment:

  1. What has happened in the past? This is the first and most important question because it has to do with their trauma history. If you’re fostering a child currently, chances are, you don’t have the full-scope of what they’ve been through or the situation they’ve come from. But, you know there is a measure of trauma. Keep that in mind, always! If you’ve adopted your child, you probably know more of their story- history of abuse, neglect, if they witnessed domestic violence, etc., so you have the full picture (or at least almost a full picture). This is a constant question to ask yourself, friends. We’ve written previously on how understanding trauma changes your journey and how you parent, and interact with, your children. But simply asking yourself, ‘What has happened in the past?’ on the daily, helps to calm you down and give you perspective when he or she is acting out or dis-regulated. Especially if it’s an everyday thing.
  2. What is happening now? It’s important to keep in mind what is currently happening in your home, with your children, or something currently surrounding your children. Are they in the waiting for their adoption to be finalized and it’s been a lot of back and forth between the courts and case managers? Did they just experience a difficult visit with a birth family member? Are you fostering currently and a new placement just arrived and it’s all-hands on deck for you, or you and your spouse? Has there been a change in the schedule or routine this week? Is school starting in just a few days? All of these questions (and you can probably come up with way more) are critical to keep in mind with your kiddo. Their behavior, whether silly, or aggressive, or defiant, can be a direct result of something that is currently happening in your home, or even outside of it. My children react to tense world news often. Even the youngest one.
  3. What’s about to happen in the near future? Last week we were at a family camp in North Dakota. It was just after breakfast and we were heading to our different groups. Kristin and I were going to spend the entire day working with parents, while all of our children were going to divide up into groups with counselors to do outdoor activities. One of our little ones was completely out of control. I’m talking OUT….OF….CONTROL! Bouncing all over the place, pestering his other siblings, talking back to us….a full blown defiance cocktail! As we were walking along a trail at the camp, both of us had just about had enough. We were about to go into shutdown mode (not particularly proud of that), when suddenly the thought crossed my mind- What’s about to happen with him? He’s about to walk into a group of kids he doesn’t know, with a counselor he’s barely met. He was anxious. He was freaking out and this is how he articulated it. I quietly said to Kristin, “He’s nervous. That’s why he’s behaving this way.” She agreed. And simply asking ourselves “What’s about to happen in the near future?” helped us re-gear how we interacted with him. Kristin took him by the hand and walked down a separate trail with him to talk things through. I’m not saying that this is 100% how your outcome will be when you ask this question, but that day, it changed everything for us.

We’ve whispered these 3 questions to our ourselves more times than we can keep track of in the past and it’s helped us to see our children in a different light. Even some of our children who have not been through as much trauma as others. Heck, you can even use these questions if you have a biological child who hasn’t been come from a traumatic past. Lord knows all of us deal with anxiety, stress, and feeling overwhelmed and we don’t always do the best job at saying, “Hey, this is what I’m dealing with and this is why I’m acting this way.”

Question: Have you asked questions like these in the past? How have they helped you? Share with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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