In a research-intensive book about couple communication that Dan and I are reading together, the authors emphasize how important it is to be aware of “filters” that might be affecting our conversations. A filter could be a bad mood, a distraction, an unspoken expectation—anything, really, that colors the way we hear and respond to our partners.
Immediately upon reading this, I thought of lunchtime. In our house, lunchtime falls anywhere from five minutes to an hour past my blood sugar threshold of niceness, and I inevitably become hangry. “Hangry” refers to the type of hunger-induced anger that, say, a cross-dressing Chris Farley might experience when denied French fries:
If Dan tries to speak to me when I am in this state of ravenous rage, I am liable to eat his head. This is an example of a “filter” through which his kind offers to help with lunch are interpreted as direct insults to my person and through which my attempts to express my feelings are interpreted as acts of cannibalism. Knowing that it’s my hangry hour, however, helps us get through it. (That, and compulsive snacking.) The point is that, by being aware of underlying factors, we take away much of their invisible power to manipulate situations for the worse.
(This is the face of hanger, FYI… brought to you by lunchtime circa 2009.)
I was reminded of this charming tendency of mine when a wise grandmom wrote me following my last Open-Source Parenting post. She shared her realization that sometimes meltdowns (of both the child and the parent variety) happen when we don’t have enough nutrients in our system—when we haven’t had enough protein that day, or when we’ve been eating a lot of junk food. Of course! I thought, reading her email. It’s the hangry effect!
I don’t know why I had never connected that idea to my children’s behavior before, but she’s absolutely right. Sometimes behavior problems aren’t really behavior problems at all; sometimes they’re tummy problems.
Other times, behavior problems are actually sleep problems. I am firmly convinced that most children we know here in this Mediterranean culture of long, late dinners do not get enough sleep at night and that this makes their little brains jittery and contrary during the day.
I see it happening with emotional states too, how one of the girls will channel her sadness or frustration into unpleasant behavior. (Don’t we all do this, really?) It also tends to happen when our schedules are overfull or when there’s too little attention to go around. Sometimes, behavior problems really are behavior problems and need to be met with consequences, but sometimes—more than fifty percent of the time for us—our kids are acting out because of some underlying cause that needs to be addressed more than the behavior itself does.
This troubleshooting approach is not the easiest, I know. It would take far less work to pick a preferred brand of punishment and wield it each time our children misbehave. In fact, I’ve heard disciplinarians argue that because kids thrive on consistency, punishment should take a one-crime-fits-all approach. That’s terrible reasoning though, especially if we want to reach our children’s hearts. These are our children, not lab rats being taught to perform a series of socially acceptable actions. I’m not nearly as interested in how well my girls act as I am in how well they are. If my daughter is feeling stressed, that’s the issue I want to address above and beyond the fact that she yelled at me. If my daughter clearly needs some sleep (or a steak!), that’s what I need to provide before I even think about sermonizing.
When I pay attention the context of my children’s behavior, I often see that it’s not about the behavior at all, and this helps me to respond to their needs rather than react to their deeds. (Too cheesy? Feel free to turn that into an ironic cross-stitch wall hanging if you’d like.)
Your turn! What underlying causes have you noticed affecting your kids’ behavior? Do you have any tried and true methods for deciphering what’s going on behind your child’s tone of voice? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!