Has your child ever had a puzzling behaviour that just won’t go away?
A behaviour that keeps sticking around, no matter what strategies you try?
One they keep repeating over and over, making you increasingly uncomfortable or perplexed?
I call these “sticky” behaviours.
Sometimes they can be an indication that something inside of US needs to shift.
It can be our reaction to the behaviour – fuelled by the uncomfortable feelings (or stuck survival energy) that it triggers in us – that is making it “sticky”.
Perhaps the first time we experienced the behaviour from our child, we were feeling tired, stressed, or simply caught off guard, and we responded with frustration or anger? And then, after a few times it really started to get under our skin?
Or perhaps the behaviour is triggering something deeper inside of us from longer ago, from an experience that feels similar in some way to us, that we are still carrying fear, shame or other upset feelings about?
Our child doesn’t feel able to let the behaviour go, because of the discomfort they experience in us when it happens.
This can also explain why a child sometimes exhibits a certain behaviour with one parent, and not the other.
They might repeat the behaviour with the parent who is uncomfortable with it, as opposed to the one who is not phased by it.
There is a neurophysiological explanation for this – it is likely that when we experience this behaviour, it feels “threatening” in some way, and is activating our sympathetic nervous system (the one that is responsible for “Fight or Flight”).
It is triggering us into irritation, fear or anger, and (as much as we might try to suppress it!) our reaction is unconsciously expressed through our tone of voice, posture and facial expression.
Or maybe we feel overwhelmed by the behaviour, and go straight into “Shut Down”. We are not able to stay present with our child through this behaviour, and this is also expressed in our non-verbal behaviour.
Being in “Fight or Flight” or “Shut Down” prevents us from offering our child a truly warm, relaxed and loving response to their behaviour, and instead our voice, body and our facial expression will be either activated and tense, or still and flat.
This can be really unsettling and confusing for our child.
These nervous system states convey to our child a sense of “danger”, activating their sympathetic nervous system.
They need us to respond to their behaviour with “safety” in our nervous system, giving them a sense of safety.
So they are unconsciously compelled to repeat the same behaviour over and over until they get a different, “safer” response from us.
When we feel safe, they feel safe, and they can let the behaviour go.
And if we can find a way to help them laugh about our response to their behaviour afterwards through some power reversal play that will be even better, as the sympathetic activation in their nervous system can be released through laughter.
I wonder how you feel hearing this?
Perhaps you feel frustrated or overwhelmed, because it puts the onus on us parents (yet again!), meaning more work we need to do! And we’re already doing so much!
If that is your reaction, I hear you! I have felt that too, at times. And I’m holding you with so much compassion, and appreciation for all that you are already doing.
And yet, I feel it can also be freeing to take responsibility for our part in these things. It can give us a sense of effectiveness in a situation that we have otherwise felt powerless to influence.
What is inside us we have some control over. What is external to us, such as another person’s behaviour, we have no direct control over.
If you’re resonating with this, and feel willing to take a look at what you might be bringing to a particular “sticky” behaviour, one thing that can help is to have some support from a friend, listening partner or counsellor to explore what comes up for us when our child behaves in that way.
We can bring our awareness to the thoughts, memories, feelings and the sensations that come up in our body when we see, hear or feel our child’s behaviour.
What does our child’s behaviour or our reaction to it remind us of? What was that original experience like for us? What did it feel like? What were we really needing back then, to hear, to feel?
Alternatively, we can explore this by ourselves, by writing all of these things in a journal.
We can receive care and support (from someone else or from ourselves), a few kind empathic words, and some soothing touch, to give us a sense of safety.
And we can follow our body’s impulses to expend any associated sympathetic activation from our system, by crying, shaking, laughing, or letting our body move in any way it feels like moving.
Sometimes, when we take the opportunity to do these things, the magic will happen, and the “sticky” behaviour will simply dissolve!
I’d love to hear whether you have any experience of these kinds of “sticky” behaviours … or the seemingly miraculous shifts.
PS I’m not suggesting that this is the reason for all repetitive or compulsive behaviour.