Breaking The Cycle: When Misbehavior or Feelings Are Part Of Your Child's Routine

Every morning Janice's daughter, Samantha, would fight with her about her clothes. Even if they'd picked the outfit out the night before, the next morning it would be the same old complaint, "I'm not wearing that, I hate it!" One day, however, Samantha simply put the clothes on without complaining. As mother and daughter walked out the door to go to school, Samantha turned to her mom and said with an exclamation of surprise, "Mom! We forgot our fight today!"

Sometimes parents and children get stuck in a negative cycle in which fighting, or misbehavior, or even feelings become part of the routine.

In a similar case, three year old John had had a fairly rough time separating from his mom at his new preschool. Each day he'd go willingly into the lobby of the school building. Once they were in the elevator, however, he would bury his head in her legs and begin to cry, claiming, "I'm shy." By the time he got to the classroom door, he was hysterical and wouldn't let his mother leave. After about four weeks of this, his mother noticed a subtle, yet significant, difference: after entering the elevator, John would look up at her calmly and state, "Now I'm going to be shy."

When negative behavior or feelings become part of a routine with your child, it's often because there is a level of comfort for the child in the predictability inherent in that cycle. After all, the child may believe that if a miserable routine is followed by a good day, why rock the boat? In fact, the child may reason, what if it takes negative feelings in a routine to actually make the day come out all right? Of course, as adults we know this is ridiculous, but for some children it may feel all too real.

So, how do you know if the negative feelings your child has during a routine are habitual or not? Well, it's a fine line actually, and we must be careful never to casually dismiss feelings our children may be having. Still, if your child seems to be experiencing the same exact feelings every day as part of a routine - especially if the feelings occur at the exact same point - or if you suspect that your child's negativity is obligatory because it doesn't seem to have any passion behind it (for example if he tells you what he's going to feel before showing you those feelings), then your child may be stuck in a negative cycle.

There are a couple of options for breaking out of this cycle, depending on the age of your child. If your child is five years old or younger, it's helpful to acknowledge his feelings as part of a larger picture. For example, in the case of John, who felt "shy" in the elevator, Mom could say "Ok, sounds like you think it's time to feel shy now. So go ahead, and then we'll get out of the elevator and I'll give you a big hug. Then I'll walk you to your classroom and I'll say 'bye-bye' and I'll see you after school." After several days she might then say, "How about if you try a different feeling today? What feeling might you feel in the elevator besides shy? Could you feel happy? Or silly? Or excited?" (Note that mom isn't belittling her child's feelings - after all, maybe she's wrong about him incorporating "shy" as part of his routine. Taking him seriously minimizes the risk inherent in this type of guesswork.) At this point, even if John should pick another "negative" feeling like "sad", his ability to actually substitute a different feeling is still one step closer towards leaving negative feelings out of the routine altogether.

In the case of a child who is older than five, it's often best to sit down with her separate from the actual routine. In the case of Janice and Samantha, Janice might choose to talk to her daughter at bedtime, when both are relaxed and winding down from the day. She might try something like, "Samantha, it seems as though fighting with each other in the mornings has become part of our routine. What do you think?" Mom might also ask Samantha to evaluate how it feels to have fighting as part of the morning by saying, "Are you comfortable with the way mornings go?" Asking open questions not only allows Samantha to give her input, but implies that there is a possibility for change. Even if Samantha is defiant for some reason and claims to like things the way they are, Mom can give her own opinion, "Well, I don't like fighting with you in the morning, and I was hoping you might have some thoughts about how we could make things easier - about how we might do the morning routine without the fight." Most children are open to change if they have the opportunity to give their input. It's when parents are dictatorial advisors that children are more likely to balk. Still, if Samantha is silent in this case, Mom could make a few suggestions herself, as long as they're in question rather than statement form. She might say, for example, "Well, how about if we only leave clothing that is acceptable for the current season in your drawers or closet? That way no matter what you pick out, it'll be fine with me." Although as the parent you should always have a few suggestions ready, it's really the verbal acknowledgment that negativity has become part of your routine that actually changes the cycle. Once you and your child are both aware that the feelings are more habitual than genuine, the cycle often changes of its own accord, even without a "solution" per se.

It's not unusual for negativity to become a part of routines - even among adults! A willingness on your part to patiently open the lines of communication - and keep them open - is the key to lasting change. Displaying or acting on your own negative feelings during a routine - your anger, frustration, disgust, embarrassment - only fuels an already negative fire and may result in a routine that incorporates your own negativity as well as your child's, making it doubly difficult to change.