The neighbourhood kids are all playing a great game of cricket and your youngest child who is playing around the peripheral has an opportunity to field the ball and promptly runs off with it and hides. The game comes to a screeching halt until they can find another ball. How do you deal with your child when they refuse to return the ball?

I think we’ve probably all tried every strategy:

·         Kindness: “Come on darling, let’s give the ball back”,

·         The hard line: “They can’t play without it, give it back!”

·         Manipulation: “You’re not being a very good friend. They might not want to play with you next time if you do this.”

·         Force: which involves wrestling your child to the ground and trying to remove said ball without their consent.

·         Time Out: “You can go and sit there in time out until you’ve thought about what you’ve done and can come back and play properly”

The problem with all these strategies is that they all assume that the child’s behaviour is attention seeking or “bad” and none of them address the underlying reason why they child stole the ball. If we can figure out and deal with the root of the issue, the behaviour we dislike will probably change because it is no longer needed!

It may be helpful if we begin to look at all our children’s behaviour as being communication, telling us how they are feeling when they can’t express it in words.

In fact, more often than not, our children’s behaviour may actually be connection seeking. This idea comes from attachment theory which suggest that a human’s primary need is to form secure attachments with the key people in their lives. Perhaps one of our greatest fears (other than public speaking or death) is separation from the ones we love.

What if our kids are just wanting to connect with us and feel included?

What if they are doing all types of strange and annoying behaviour because they are afraid and feel disconnected from us?

If there’s anything I have noticed since having my own kids is that when they know they are loved, they are secure and kind. They mostly do all the things that make me feel like I’m a great mum. However, if they feel threatened, jealous or missing out on my attention, all hell breaks loose.

So here’s a thought. Next time your child does something annoying, out of character, eg wrecks their siblings Lego creation that took you a combined 30 hours to build, or punches someone in the nose, you might like to try the concept of TIME IN. This involves taking a long slow breath to calm yourself down to avoid doing something you might regret and focussing on connecting with your child.

Time in is when we as the parent or care giver, hold them close tightly (but not too tightly) while they kick and scream or gently if they stand like a stiff board and then we wait. We might whisper words of love and understanding about how they might be feeling “Did you feel left out darling? It’s really hard isn’t it when no one wants to play with us”, “I’m here now, you’re safe” and wait for them to relax into us. The purpose of this is to build a secure connection between you, which is the most important buffer for them in the challenges of life.

Some of you might be worried that if you do this you are encouraging “bad” behaviour because they get the reward of closeness with you. The reality is, connection is not a reward, it’s a fundamental need. Our children actually NEED a close connection with us. They NEED love to survive. It’s not an optional extra and if we begin building Time In into our regular lives aka hugs and affection, reassurance and love we will likely see a reduction in unhelpful behaviour and see our kids being a lot more resilient and happy.

Written by Gretchen Mitchell, psychologist, Lighthouse Leadership - Psychology & Training