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A little girl is lying on the floor holding a LEGO piece and kicking her feet. Her older sister, in the middle of building, keeps demanding, “Give it back! Give it to me!”

“You need to start listening and give that to your sister right now!” her dad intones angrily.

The air is tense. You can sense a standoff. And it’s all because that little one is being “bad.” Right?

What if instead of labeling, we got curious. A child’s behavior is a symptom of their unmet needs and their unexpressed or poorly expressed feelings. Kids (hell, a lot of adults) have trouble recognizing their emotions and expressing them. And when that happens we get behaviors we think of as bad or inappropriate or acting out or melting down.

I like to tell parents they need to be a detective.

That doesn’t mean snooping around. It means getting curious, looking for clues, asking questions and listening. You can help your child understand WHY they’re doing what they are doing.

Let’s go back to that little girl lying on the floor.

Her mom looks at her glaring at her sister and kicking at the LEGO creation. She looks at the box of LEGOs still to be opened. She starts naming what she sees.

“Your sister has a new LEGO set, huh?”


“And you don’t have any. That probably doesn’t feel very good to you. Are you wishing you had a new LEGO set too?”

“Uh huh.”

“I might feel a little jealous right now if it were me.”

She nods and begins to cry.

This example was a 6-year-old, but it works with 16-year-olds too. In fact, we can help our kids at every age learn to understand why they are acting the way they are acting AND express their feelings.

Often our kids don’t know why they’re feeling crappy or even if that feeling is sadness or anger or jealousy or fear. They may not know what they need. They just know something isn’t right.

You can start with the basics.
Have they had enough sleep? Have they eaten? Do they need to let off some energy?

Think about what’s happening in their life.

Are they waiting for results of a try out? Do they have a big project due soon? Have they had any down time lately? Is there something there that’s a clue you could talk about? You may want to ask your child questions to help them figure out what is wrong, but remember, it’s not an interrogation.

Look for the feelings and needs behind the behavior.

Your goal is to be open and curious. You need to listen. And here’s one more tip about being a detective. You don’t have to be the problem solver here. Even though the situation may be uncomfortable, this isn’t about making things “better” or taking care of a problem; it’s about your child (and you) acknowledging their feelings and connecting them to their actions.

And believe it or not, when they get a chance to feel their feelings and when they feel heard and understood by you, the bad behavior usually stops. Feeling heard and understood diffuses the situation and regulates our big emotions. And as they learn how to put words to their emotions and ask for what they need, they won’t have the inner need to act them out through their behavior.

Being the empathetic detective stops the behaviors, power struggles and tension in its tracks.
But … you might be saying, I can’t let them get away with being rude or slamming doors or shouting at me … or taking their sister’s LEGOs.

Being the detective and helping your child understand their emotions and actions doesn’t mean you have to condone the actions. You may need to brainstorm better alternatives when they feel really mad or jealous or disrespected or whatever. The child may need to repair trust with you or their sibling. And those are great conversations to have, but after you’ve done the detective work.

What about you?

And before we’re done, you can be a detective with yourself too. Next time you find yourself slamming dinner down on the table or yelling at your kids for leaving their shoes in the hall, ask what need you have that isn’t being met. Maybe you feel unappreciated or maybe you’re stressed about being somewhere on time. How can you cut yourself some slack? Can you acknowledge your feelings to yourself and perhaps to another adult? Can you model taking a breath and calming yourself down before you act out? It’s a journey for sure!

Tell us how it went in the comments below!

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