Disobedient or Disoriented?
How many times have we heard the expression “He’s a lost soul”? We can sense when this is the case in someone close to us, such as a relative or friend, or even in a public figure in the wider community who causes us concern. To be lost and have no one to help us find our way is the stuff of nightmares.
No one likes to be disoriented, and few things in life are more unsettling. But children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to feeling lost and unsafe. We know there is too much coming at them all the time in today’s frenetic world. Few adults among us have had to cope with the incessant stream of images, impressions, ideas, attitudes, and conflicting messages modern kids must navigate. We are, quite frankly, living in the midst of an undeclared war on childhood. Kids are exposed to too much and forced to grow up too quickly. As a result, disorientation and heightened anxiety have become the new normal.
So it’s no wonder that troubling behavior surfaces more and more often at home and at school. As parents, we want to shield our children as much as possible, to provide a safe haven for them from the unrelenting buzzing and booming, the fever-pitched pace of modern life.
In this climate, disciplining a “disobedient” child can be quite challenging. We often feel like we are fumbling in the dark. We try so hard to say and do the right thing with the appropriate amount of energy and emphasis. We want to guide our children—to teach them how to behave and how not to behave. Our ultimate goal is to prepare them to handle themselves well as they set sail into modern society’s often difficult waters.
Setting the Foundation— Understanding Disorientation
The way we perceive and approach misbehavior is the key to diffusing our children’s difficult and even explosive conduct. A critical shift in our approach to parenting takes place when we begin to understand that there is no such thing as a disobedient child, only a disoriented one.
In this chapter, we will examine our misconceptions about disobedience. If we can see our kids’ challenging behavior as an attempt to orient themselves within the frenetic, confusing world they struggle to navigate, our role will shift from Disciplinarian in Chief or Crisis Management Specialist to Governor, Gardener, and Guide.
The Pinging Principle
Children, tweens, and teens orient themselves in a number of ways. They may read, play creatively, listen to a story, spend time in nature, delve into a hobby, or simply decompress while hanging out with family. These types of activities form a protective sheath between them and the hardness of the “real” world. They become the membrane through which kids process and digest all the good, the bad, and the busy things that happen in their lives. Engaging in these kinds of activities is not just a form of coping. It’s how kids build resiliency and a burgeoning sense of self-esteem. When they can find a more centered and peaceful place within, they can let go and regroup their inner resources. What they are building is a sense of knowing who and where they are in their lives. When they can do this, they feel safe and well oriented.
But when there is too much going on in their lives, children lose their bearings and become disoriented. This can trigger a reaction that often manifests as challenging behavior. They push back against the world outside themselves. Unfortunately, the “outside” world they push against tends to be those nearest and dearest to them. It is so important to understand that their naughtiness or disrespect is not simply misbehavior but an attempt to come to some sort of balance in which they feel oriented and comfortable.
I call this the “Pinging Principle.” Just as a submarine navigator gets his or her bearings by sending out sonic pings that bounce off underwater objects and orient the ship to rocks or reefs, our children send out “pings” in the form of challenging behavior. They nag, disrupt, or cry—seeking a reaction from us that will help orient them. This is their way of figuring out where they stand and what we want from them. In other words, the interplay between our kids’ behavior and our adult reaction serves as a navigational system for them.
Understanding this concept is a real game changer. “When I recognized that my child was not just being naughty but actually feeling lost and pinging me, it changed everything,” one parent of a young child told me. “Instead of just reacting to his behavior, I could now look for its source and understand it better.” Another dad, with two young boys, said, “I tested this pinging idea. I watched each time my kids got antsy and fresh. Amazingly, just about every time it was because our family life had gotten a bit whacko.”
“I Don’t Take It Personally Anymore”
When kids “misbehave,” it is only natural for a parent to run through a dog-eared catalog of self-doubt and recrimination. Some of the most common inscriptions on our personal parenting walls of shame are “I wonder what I did wrong in raising them?” or, for the guilt-wracked among us, who feel like untrained stand-ins, “Anyone else would deal with this better than me. Who am I to be doing this?” The Imposter Syndrome is particularly onerous. Like the Wizard of Oz, who makes great proclamations but feels small and unworthy behind that screen, we may feel unprepared, incapable, and lost just at a time when our kids most need us to be strong and oriented.
Feeling unmoored, we take our children’s behavior personally. In a flash, we can shift from self-doubt and self-recrimination to angry reactions, punctuated by comments like “You will not speak to me that way, ever!” or “Do it right now, mister, or you will have me to deal with!”
Just about every parenting expert expounds on how we must stay calm in the face of bad behavior. Good advice, but how? Because unless we have a foothold on the “how,” the cycle of self-blame will lead us right back to taking it personally. That catapults us to as far from calm as a parent can be.
When children are at their worst, we need to be at our best. Danny and Suzanne’s story illustrates this well:
I met Suzanne at a parenting workshop I gave in Washington, D.C. She was struggling with a very defiant boy. Together we explored the difference between bad behavior and disorientation. “It was a real ‘aha’ moment for me when I began to see that my son Forrest’s very difficult behavior was in fact a cry for orientation,” she said. “Before we realized this, my husband Danny and I really struggled. We treated Forrest like a little adult, presuming that he had much more control over his behavior than he really did. We figured he knew what he was doing—that he was trying to wind us up. That led to all kinds of conflict and ugly scenes. We figured he should know how to stop, and we told him so. It might seem kind of crazy to get involved in a power struggle with a four-year-old, but that is exactly where we were.”
Danny was at his wits’ end too: “I’d get so exasperated. The more I insisted Forrest was making ‘bad choices’ about his behavior—that he should be capable of controlling himself—the more out-of-control he got. I can see now that his behavior wasn’t bad; it was desperate. But back then I would get into these battles with him. You can’t believe how personal it got. But I felt he was disrespecting me as a person, and it really pushed my buttons.”
When Suzanne told Danny about the Pinging Principle, it made perfect sense to them both, but it upended their ingrained attitude toward their son and his behavior. “This new way of seeing the problem was scary and hopeful all at the same time,” said Suzanne. “But the one thing it did immediately was to shift us away from taking Forrest’s antics personally. You just can’t take it personally anymore when your son has a meltdown if you’ve found a place within yourself to ask, ‘What does he need to orient himself? What can I do to help?’ In the few seconds we spend asking ourselves these questions, we move from being reactive and taking it too personally to seeing the underlying forces and staying much more centered, to becoming the kind of parents we always wanted to be.”
Forrest still has occasional meltdowns, and he still pushes back. But Suzanne and Danny are relieved and grateful that the length and intensity of the difficult behavior has diminished to such a degree that it’s “unrecognizable.” Suzanne and Danny have undergone their own transformation: As Danny put it, “It’s like I’m me now, not some weird person arguing with a four-year-old.”
Does the Pinging Principle apply when a child is being deliberately challenging? The answer is yes. Even when children misbehave on purpose, they need guidance. Whether pinging behavior is conscious or unconscious, it is still a cry for help.
A woman we’ll call Claire wrote to me about an experience she had when she was five years old. Her mother had just returned to full-time work after being an ever-present stay-at-home mom. Little Claire decided to go on an adventure. She walked to an abandoned warehouse four blocks from her home to explore “all the really good junk” she imagined she would find there. What’s worse, she took her three-year-old sister with her. “I knew very well it was against the rules,” she said, “but I did it anyway.” A scary-looking man discovered them coming out of the building. He called out, “Go home, girls.” They did just that, running all the way. Their parents were shocked when Claire’s younger sister spilled the whole story that afternoon, and they watched the children closely for a long time afterward.
Reflecting on her actions, Claire said, “I am not sure if doing this was directly related to my mother going back to work, but I suspect I was feeling the need for their attention. I guess it was natural for my parents to worry after my adventure and make sure we stayed in the yard, but I certainly never would have done something like that again.” The fact that Claire’s parents were so attentive after their scare made her “feel safe again.” Her willful disregard of the rules was quite clearly a call for attention and orientation.
Orientation Through Play
Any parent who observes their child deep in play knows how much kids try to make sense of what they have seen or heard through playing. Deep, absorbing play gives a child a sense of contentment and safety. Many of life’s stresses reappear as games. Playing through these issues is how kids orient themselves inwardly.
As I walked by a group of eight-year-old children one sunny morning in May, I overheard them chanting a jump-rope rhyme. It went something like this:
Soccer on Monday,
Playdates on Tuesday,
Ballet on Wednesday,
Soccer on Thursday,
Playdates on Friday,
Soccer on Saturday.
Sunday ain’t no rest.
What stopped my heart about this seemingly innocuous rhyme is that it didn’t detail the overwhelming, overscheduled life of just one or two of the kids on the playground. Every last kid had his or her own individual jump-rope chant. And each song described a child’s fever-pitched pace of life. Music lessons, various sports, aftercare at school, and homework were recurring themes. Here is another one that I quickly jotted down:
Piano on Monday,
Swimming on Tuesday,
Tutor on Wednesday,
Piano on Thursday,
Swimming on Friday,
Shopping on Saturday
Homework every day—no rest! [Here all the children shouted out.]
One child who moved back and forth between her mother’s and father’s homes had an even simpler chant:
Mommy on Monday,
Daddy on Tuesday,
Mommy on Wednesday,
Daddy on Thursday,
Mommy on Friday,
Don’t know Saturday,
Sunday maybe rest—phew!
One couple I spoke to returned from a checkup at the pediatrician’s office expecting that their children would want to play a game of doctors and nurses. But the doctor’s office had been frenetic and exasperating, and it had been clear that the staff struggled to keep up with the demands of the clinic. That’s exactly the message the kids absorbed. Day after day they played a game they called “Health Security Office.” They sat inside a big cardboard box “office” for hours drawing up forms on clipboards in their best tiny writing, with lots of boxes to check. Then they instructed their parents to wait outside a cutout window for long periods of time while they frantically answered their play phone. From time to time, the children would look up over their homemade eyeglasses and ask, “Yes? What?” in a well-practiced, annoyed tone. Thrusting clipboard and pen at the parents, they’d say, “Please read the in-suctions and answer every one of our questions!” This scene was repeated over and over until they had played the stress of the visit out of their systems.
When Normal Becomes Not So Normal
When overscheduling or an anxiety-inducing experience pushes a child off-balance, his or her own darling quirks—the very things we love about our child’s personality at any other time—become exacerbated and suddenly annoy or even infuriate parents. One helpful tip: Consider your child’s temperament. Extroverted personalities fall into either what I call “The Leader Type,” a child who can become very dominant and controlling when off-balance, and “The Creative Type,” a child who can become unfocused or even hysterical in this type of situation. Introverted types whom you might describe as “Easygoing” in other situations can become very stubborn and rigid when off-balance. If your child is a more “Intuitive” introvert, he or she may become overly sensitive and feel “victimized” by a harried pace of life. Whether your child is an introvert or an extrovert, stress affects behavior in very specific ways.
Sarah, a single mom with two children, consulted me about her daughter’s inflamed temperament: “My thirteen-year-old daughter Lucy tends to be out there in the lead. A courageous girl who excels in sports, she is not afraid to work really hard. However, when we moved out of our house and town last year, she became impossible. I was at my wits’ end because I was relying on her to pitch in and help, as I knew she could. But instead she became bossy and fixated on having everything done her way. Suddenly Lucy, who has always been a watchful big sister and my right-hand girl, doubled my workload with her demands and shenanigans.”