I was recently asked a question by a dear reader, and thought that today we can unfold the situation together as it may apply to many people and be of benefit.

Dear Lubomira, My son has been having a hard time lately and I am constantly getting calls from his teacher about his problematic and rebellious behaviour. Can you offer me some insight on how to approach this, because I’ve tried all I could but he doesn’t want to talk to me. 

One thing we need to first understand is that often times children, and actually most people in general, will set us up to feel how they feel. Or in other words: he is making you feel what he feels. So how do you feel? Be really honest.

[Side note: This doesn’t imply that your child’s feelings are an extention of your own – and that how you feel, they feel also – no, that’s not true. However, what this approach attempts to do is to put you in a space of more empathy, openness and acceptance, and then, create the space in which your child may open up to you and share his own feelings and needs.]

Perhaps you are feeling out of control. Powerless, helpless. Unlistened to, disrespected, and incapable to do anything in this situation. Well, that’s how he probably feels. He is having needs that are unmet and his coping mechanism is this behaviour. So to approach this, we must create the environment that will support and meet his unmet needs, and allow for new feelings to arise.

For example, if someone feels abandoned, create more commitment and stability. If they feel betrayed, they need to experience loyalty. If they feel disconnected, they need to feel more loved and prioritized. And if the feeling is out of control – then we need to allow them more freedom, control, respect their boundaries, and recognize their our individuality.

Often times children rebel because they are feeling restricted or limitated in some way, or are in an environment that is just too controlling, whether emotionally, verbally, mentally or physically. Growing up in authoritarian or controlling environments usually expresses itself as rebellious behaviour and then may even result in low self-esteem. The fact that the child is being rebellious is a sign that he understands that somewhere along the line, his boundaries have been crossed, whether his personal space, privacy, freedom of voice or choice. This should be dealt with because otherwise he may grow up with either becoming too controlling himself, or too permissive, while others are more likely to mistreat him, continuing to cross his boundaries. Overall, he will grow up unable to express his own needs and feelings, which is incredibly harmful – because it will lead to people-pleasing behaviours and staying in unhealthy situations for too long out of fear to “rock the boat”; he will have an ingrained belief like his needs and feelings aren’t important. 

So to help him in this situation – we need to give the boy a sense of control, a sense of freedom, respect his boundaries and personal space and choices, and provide a non-judgmental environment in which he can come to us without feeling ashamed of sharing his feelings or problems at school.

If the boy is a child of younger age, we can do something simple such as giving choices like: “Which glass would you like for your juice, the blue or the yellow one?” Give them plenty of choices every day, so that they can regain their sense of personal space, control and individuality. Even if the choices seem silly to us – it will make the child feel more empowered where his voice matters.

Photography by Izabela Urbaniak.

Furthermore, what the boy in this situation needs is perhaps more stability and predictability. When a child experiences stability in his home, i.e. the parents are emotionally stable, this makes the child more confident in his own changing emotions and also gives him a sense of personal control. When adults are controlling, they create emotional instability, because they will lash out any time something or someone is no longer acting as they want. So this causes the child to suppress his own needs and emotions, until suddenly he starts acting out – which is just a way to reclaim some of his personal power.

Another way that a child deals with emotional unstable environments, is that he becomes a people pleaser, because he thinks that that’s the only way his parents will allow him some peace and harmony – which is of course not true, since the issue is the parents’ inability to manage their own emotions. Such controlling and unstable environments also create fear in the child of ever doing something that might trigger the adult – which then creates a suppression of self, emotions and needs. What the child is essentially trying to do through “problematic” behaviours is to create an environment of equilibrium or inner stability; he is trying to take back his own control and power. This behaviour is a coping mechanism, which in this case has become detrimental to the external environment. The problem is that children are just not taught the tools for coping in a better way. So – we need to give the child more tools on how to cope to get the emotional experiences that they are lacking and needing. 

Photography by Izabela Urbaniak.

Suppose the problem is not controlling environment but low self-esteem. Then, we need to build the child’s self-esteem because otherwise they will grow up becoming “the problem child”. It certainly wouldn’t be helpful to continue seeing their behavior as “problematic” or worse yet labeling it, because this will only make their self-esteem lower and crush them, eventually leading them to identifying themselves as “problematic” in their older years.

We also need to keep in mind the teachers. We need to do our due diligence and try to find out more about the school’s teaching system and how students are treated there. What is described as problematic behaviour anyway? Is the child just speaking out, having an independent mind, being a free thinker, or is he just being rebellious for the sake of causing chaos? Is the child being bullied or mistreated? Are his boundaries being crossed? Because if they are – anger would be the most natural emotion to have. If the environment isn’t good in his school and with his teachers and peers, then we’d need to change that. It also takes a great deal of personal integrity, consciousness and awareness for teachers to deal with “difficult” type children and situations, and not to project their own selves onto them, and start treating the child differently because of their own issues. 

We need to be thinking about what’s best for the child. Growing up in environments where they would be looked at as if they are always doing something wrong, or are difficult, problematic, “messed-up”, is going to be internalized and they will eventually start acting out in accordance to these conditioned beliefs, labels and identities that they’ve assumed as their own. 

Photography by Izabela Urbaniak.

Of course, more than anything though – a child needs love. The number one reason that children act out is because they need more love, attention, affection and understanding.

So love, love, love.

Show him that you love him no matter what the situation is, and don’t distance yourself from him because he is being “problematic”. Create a non-judgmental environment where he can feel that he can talk to you, and share his feelings, without being shamed in any way. It is important that he remembers that you will stick by him, and love him, support him and hold him, even through the problems.

Photography by Izabela Urbaniak.

Let’s look at another example.  

Suppose your child is always running late, and so you too are running late for your work, or other appointments. 

Firstly: How do you feel? 

You probably feel like you can’t rely on them, you feel frustrated, unheard. Well, that’s probably how the child feels. 

So – what can you do to be more reliable and present in their life? Are you dependable? Are you there for them when they need you, or have things become a little too distant and disconnected recently? How do you show up for your child? Are you listening to their needs?

Photography by Izabela Urbaniak.

And again, remember:

This doesn’t mean that your child’s emotions are an extension of your own – this only means you are trying to understand the feelings behind the behaviour in times when there is no communication nor understanding and find different strategies for how to create an improvement for that state of feeling, while acknowledging and validating how they are feeling. We often give to others what we want to receive, and not what they actually need. So this exercise helps you to turn the lens, and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. 

Once you understand their feelings and provide an environment which deals with the feelings, making it safe and comfortable for them to open up to you again – then you need to listen to them, fully and completely and become very attentive and empathic to their feelings, without projecting your own, without your own judgments of how they should feel in a situation. You need to tune into their own inner world and see what would be best for them. This will then further give you an indication of the reasons for your child’s behaviour and you might understand what is going on in their school, friendships and life in general. 

Photography by Izabela Urbaniak.

Holding Space for Children’s Feelings

Many years ago a video went viral online, of a father who held space for his toddler’s feelings during one of her tantrums. You can watch the video here. During the video, the toddler is having a tantrums, crying, screaming, kicking, and turning her back away from her father. During the entire time, the father remains calm, present, not reactive in any way, and not leaving her side – just sitting beside her. Yes, hard to do. Very hard to do. Our first instinctive reaction in these moments may be to raise our voice or just do something. It takes a lot of self-awareness to remain calm.

Eventually, the toddler settles into some peace, naturally stops crying, turns around towards her father, who is still sitting there beside her, and she falls into his arms – where he embraces her tightly.

So why is that important?

To a child, emotions come suddenly and overwhelmingly. Extreme emotions, that the child has no idea what they are, why they are, what to do, and how to do it. But – it is precisely in these moments that children form their subconscious beliefs about themselves, and life itself. If – during these moments, when they are acting out, the parent stays by their side, in the same loving way as they did before, the child subconscious learns that nothing in his world will be “lost” if they are going through, or feeling, something extreme. This also shows them that eventually all feelings, no matter how strong, will pass through them like water – and they will still be okay in their body. In other words: They are learning not to fear their emotions. They learn that it is safe to feel as they feel, and they will not be judged or abandoned. They learn that it is okay to feel as they feel, and there is no need to suppress anything. This makes them more capable as adults to navigate through their emotions, manage them and deal with them – because they are more acceptive of their own flows.

The only “problem” with having extreme emotions is the associated shame and guilt from having them. So it is important to show children that you will be by their side – and that it is safe for them to share with you how they feel, and what their needs are, no matter the situation.

You can read more about feelings in my two articles, The Brilliancy of Feelings and The Emotional Body, and why fairytales are important for a child’s wellbeing, as they help them make sense of emotions also, in my article The Importance of Fairytales for a Child’s Wellbeing.

Photography by Izabela Urbaniak.

And here are a few guiding tables and the connections between growing up, feelings and needs. Keep in mind that these are only general.

Feelings & Needs

  • If you are feeling anxious, your unmet needs may be to have more safety, security and stability
  • If you are feeling resentful, your unmet needs may be to feel heard, understood and noticed 
  • If you are feeling numb, your unmet needs may be to feel supported, safe and loved
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed, your unmet needs may be to have more space, support and relaxing “me-time” 
  • If you are feeling disconnected, your unmet needs may be to feel more loved and prioritized
  • If you are feeling distrust, your unmet needs may be to experience more honesty, openness, communication and loyalty
  • If you are feeling stressed, your unmet needs may be to prioritize yourself and have more self-care
  • If you are feeling abandoned, your unmet needs may be to experience more commitment, security and stability 
  • If you are feeling rebellious, your unmet needs may be to reclaim your control, personal space, voice and freedom

Parents & Children

  • If the parent is/was critical, the child has a loud inner critic
  • If the parent is/was un-approving, the child has a fear of judgment and tendency to be a people pleaser
  • If the parent is/was passive aggressive, such as giving the silent treatment, the child has lack of self-confidence, feels unworthy and unloved, and is unable to voice its own true needs and feelings
  • If the parent is/was unavailable, the child has inability to understand and express its own emotions
  • If the parent is/was co-dependent, the child has weak boundaries and becomes co-dependent also
  • If the parent is/was controlling, the child becomes rebellious, emotionally detached, controlling or too permissive and thereby more likely to be mistreated/harmed
  • If the parent is/was pessimistic, the child is more prone to self-sabotage
  • If the parent is/was not affectionate, the child is starved and seeks affection constantly, but ends up being with emotionally-cold partners, mimicking his parental way of love towards him
  • If the parent is/was not predictable, the child is attracted to, and creates/self-sabotages through, chaos
  • If the parent is/was not emotional, the child becomes apathic and distant
  • If the parent is/was not present, the child may become co-dependent, or inable to receive love and affection
  • If the parent is/was not gentle, in any shape or form, including verbally, the child experiences and has a lot of fear  

If you find yourself here whether as a parent or a grown up child, it is important to remember compassion. Outside of their role as parents, our parents are only human. And they were children like us once too – with their own needs, inner worlds and challenges. They did the best they could for us with what they knew and were taught, so forgive them and hold compassion in your hearts and gestures towards them. And if you are here as a parent, don’t be too hard on yourself – we all make mistakes, no one is perfect, and no family will ever be perfect. Remember that children are our teachers – so naturally, and purposefully, there will be misunderstandings, so that we ourselves become more self-aware. The point of this article is only to make us all more conscious and aware of our actions, and the feelings of others. Every day is a new day, a new opportunity, and we all do the best we can. Together, and with love, all will be okay.   

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The photography today is by Polish photographer and mother of two boys Izabela Urbaniak. Each summer she takes her kids to the country side where they spend computerless days and nights; where they can play with their cousins in a small village and its surrounding fields. The kids play in the lake, run with the dogs and the farm animals, and basically, engage themselves in a whole lot of shenanigans. Capturing her children’s adventures every summer, Izabela writes, “I watch them, participate in their games and even invent them. There, I’m happy.”