The Magic Word that Can Stop Annoying or Naughty Behaviors for Good

I was recently coaching a parent whose kid is in constant motion in body, words, or both. The poor family is in a frustrating push-pull of yelling, resenting, and feeling bad about each other and the situation. The parents have tried planned ignoring, being firm and direct, even punishments and rewards, but they’ve seen little progress. One of their main concerns is that when their child does stop moving or talking, the change is only for a brief moment…and then the chaos starts again. They came to me looking for help with their child’s self-management (which I am helping develop, of course!) But what they didn’t know is they needed a little help too—a small adjustment that when made, is so powerful it can feel like a little magic. I call it “avoiding the behavior hole.”

Today I want to teach you the power of avoiding the behavior hole.

You know how they call it a “show hole” when you finish watching a season or series and all of a sudden feel like you have nothing to watch, no show to satisfy that itch for comedy, or sci-fi, or drama? When we tell our kids to “stop,” but we don’t offer an idea of what to do instead, we often leave them in limbo, in what some people call a “behavior hole.” Here’s why: behaviors, actions no matter how big or small, serve a need or communicate something. A lot of it comes down to our conscious and subconscious ways of regulating our systems. When we feel hyper or anxious, we might move more, talk faster, or bounce a little when we sit; we are taking actions to calm our bodies, get closer to a more regulated, normal-feeling level of alertness. When we feel tired, we may try to use actions to wake ourselves up, shaking a foot, widening our eyes, or getting up to move around, all in an effort to come back up to the more regulated, normal level of alertness. When our emotions are out of whack, we may do the same: we feel down, we seek approval from friends or social media; when we feel angry, we let it out in a variety of ways. All behaviors stem from a need within us. We knowingly or unknowingly use our behaviors to serve a need we have.

So…when we tell our kids to “stop” whatever they are doing, we are asking them to quit serving the need they have…but the need doesn’t go away. If a kid has too much energy, and I command him to stop moving, his need to move is not gone. He may adore me, try his best to comply, even be motivated by whatever reward I have set in place, but if his need persists, he will find a way to meet it, no matter who objects or how motivated he is.

If we ask kids to stop a certain action, but we give them no other ways to serve the need causing the action, we leave our kids in the “behavior hole.” They have a need to meet but no options to meet it after they have stopped doing whatever we asked them to stop. Being in a behavior hole sets kids up for a secondary round of trouble: they will either protest your request to stop (because deep down they recognize their need) or they will eventually come back to the annoying behavior because the need didn’t go away.

My recent clients were in this very situation: their child would stop talking or moving when asked, but because his motor was still running at top speed, he eventually needed a way to let it out, and he’d start up again. His parents felt like he was being disrespectful, and he even shared the frustration with himself. He knew he wanted to make them happy but didn’t know how.

Here’s how to avoid the behavior hole: INSTEAD.

For example, your child won’t stop talking but you have to get the phone (and not have her interrupt). You could tell her, “Stop talking,” and that may work for just a bit, but it will ultimately leave her in the behavior hole. Alternatively, you could tell her, “I need to have some quiet time, can you write out your ideas instead,” or, “I’m not available to listen right now, can you tell your sister instead?” The instead-options honor your child’s needs but still get you the results you want! And, as you practice instead moments, these alternatives will be more viable for your child to choose on their own; they will be able to use a few ways to meet their own needs and do so on their own!

I have a bunch of examples of behavior holes and insteads. Here are some of the ones I face at least weekly.

Oh, the pencil tappers. I swear the little bit of metal at the top of the pencil against any desk makes this clacking noise that I was designed at the perfect pitch to set off even the most chill adult. Kids who pencil tap are serving a need for movement—either to let it out or to use movement to boost their own alert level. And even though I know better, I sometimes find myself wanting to break their pencils and gently place the fragments in the garbage while making intense eye contact with my students…aka, the sound makes me crazy. Now, I could demand that my students just stop because they should…But that would leave my kids in a should-y behavior hole, trying to comply but not knowing what to do with themselves. Instead, here’s how I handle it: “Sweety, you’re tapping your pencil, and it’s making more noise than you think it is. Please tap it on your leg instead so you can still move but you don’t bother anyone.” Hmmm…it validates that it’s okay to move and teaches the kids a way to do so without causing problems. And my pencil tappers and I don’t need that full interaction after a few times. I can literally make eye contact, tap my own leg as a reminder, and they move from desk to lap, from annoying to awesome! Plus, they’re not in a behavior hole, so I’m not faced with any of the arguing or feeling like they don’t listen to me because they’ve reverted back to the old behavior after only a few minutes. I told you it feels like magic.

How about the kids who talk constantly in class? Telling them to “stop talking” may get a few minutes of quiet, but they’ll start up again because their desire to share their ideas or seek social interaction is stronger than their self-control. (And don’t judge, because as adults we have parallel situations all the time. Our desire to watch just one more episode is stronger than the self-control promise we made to get more sleep. Our desires for food, for relaxation…so many things win out, especially at the end of the day when our need for assuring things, like food and fun, is highest and our self-control most fatigued). So, while “Stop talking” can buy a few minutes, “instead” can buy a whole bunch more—because it can help our kids serve the needs in more fitting ways. “Instead of talking during teach time, write down your ideas on this list. You can pick your top three to share at the end of class,” or, “instead of talking during teach time, wait to tell your partner in three minutes when we do turn-and-talk.” If we can support kids getting their pressing needs met in ways we set up for them, like planned partner talk time, we will help the kid regulate AND get peace and control back.

There are examples at home too. If your child breaks things when angry, “Don’t break things” leaves him in a behavior hole, but “Instead of breaking things you like or need, go to the paper recycle and tear up a box” empowers him to get his anger out in a way that fits better in your household. Plus, honestly, in the time it takes to walk to the recycle and fish out a box, your child will have calmed down a bit and may not want to destroy things anyway.                  

The main idea is this: behavior serves a function. If we say “stop,” the need to serve that function doesn’t just disappear. It will resurface in new ways, or the behavior we commanded “stop” will come back…and then we’ll feel disrespected. If we avoid leaving behavior holes, then we offer choices to our kids that serve the needs but don’t annoy or frustrate us.

If you can’t think of a replacement behavior—a choice to offer a kid instead of the annoying behavior he’s showing you now, you can have a moment with your kid. “Hey, I notice that you’re ____. But that’s not ok right now because ________. I wonder if you can (make a guess as to why they’re doing it…move your body, share your ideas, get attention, avoid your work) in another way? What do you think you could do instead?” Again, this approach—partnering with your kid to find long-term solutions that honor what she needs—is going to be slower but much more effective. And, the bonus is always the team-building relationship you’re developing and the argument avoidance! Paying it forward, people.

Alright, enough of these behavior holes. Grab that behaving kid of yours for this week’s pep talk.

Hey Kid!

Have you ever done something and not even realized it? Like clicked your pen until the teacher yelled at you? Or, maybe you’ve been told to stop moving or talking, but you can only stop for just a few seconds because you just neeeed to do it?

Today your grown up learned about these types of situations. They learned that if they only tell you “stop it” but don’t think about why you might be doing something, then chances are they will have to argue with you again and again about it. Instead, your grown up is going to partner with you and think about other ideas. How can you move your body in ways that work for the situation? How can you get attention for doing the right things? How can you get a break when work is hard (rather than acting like a turkey and getting kicked out of class)? There are always “instead” ideas! And that’s a really great way to strategize the struggle instead of saying “just stop.”

Of course, there will be times that your grown up (or you on your own) won’t have time to think of other things. There will be times when you need to just stop, like emergencies or when you’re in big trouble with authority. But, if it’s something that keeps happening, chances are you just need other ways to meet your needs, and that’s a mystery we can solve!

Have a great week! I’m sending all my love straight to you!