Difficult Behavior and Comfort

by Gerard Molitor

Children tend to become uncooperative and difficult to manage when their needs are not being met. It’s relatively easy to see this in relation to needs for food or rest. Children generally become more difficult to manage when they are tired or hungry. What’s harder to see is how important it is for children to feel that the adults around them are attentive and available if they need them. Humans are very sensitive to the availability of resources in their environment. We need to know where our next meal will come from. And we need to know who might be around to help us be safe in the world. Being human is a collective and collaborative process and we have been wired to monitor the presence and availability of support.

Children are always tracking the availability of their parents and other caregivers. When that availability is high, children tend to maintain positive mood: they have a belief that everything will be okay. They feel safe to explore their surroundings to see what satisfactions might be present. When children perceive that adult availability is low, or compromised, or intermittent, an alarm goes off. They experience a decreased sense of wellbeing and this propels them to try and re-acquire the lost resources. They take action to re-establish the connection they feel has been lost. The simplest and most common example of this is what happens when the adult is on the phone. Every possible need that a child could have automatically becomes urgent. They pressure us nonstop until we’re off the phone, at which point the needs appear to evaporate or lose their urgent nature.

So, what is happening in the larger picture of family dynamics when a child is “acting out” or being difficult? My experience in so many homes over so many years has convinced me that the primary mechanism underlying children’s difficult behavior is the child’s sense that the parent’s availability and support is absent. This is part of why it is so challenging in so many homes in the late afternoon as parents are coming home and trying to make dinner. When parents become stressed and preoccupied in the presence of their children, the children experience this as a loss of critical resources and become what the adults characterize as ‘demanding.” But as we all know, acceding to their demands doesn’t always make the demands go away. It’s not the drink, or the snack, or the toy that they really want or need. Children don’t understand their need for connection and generally we don’t either. So we often go through this list of resource tokens without satisfying them. At this point everyone is exasperated and no one is having any fun. There is an intensity of connection but it’s not the kind we want.

I have often said to parents that if we had a videotape of the day we could rewind it to the point where we noticed that the parent stopped smiling. We could then play the tape forward and watch the child’s behavior become increasingly more difficult. This is so because the smile is both a signal of the availability of positive energy, i.e., the parent has good feelings toward the child, and an actual source of positive energy, as the perception of the parent’s smile facilitates a beneficial change in the child’s neurochemistry, resulting in an enhanced sense of wellbeing. When the parent’s smile is missing, the child easily loses the sense of wellbeing and often goes into stress mode. This stress state is then sustained until the smile returns, or another smile becomes available.

Smiles on parents’ faces go a long way in helping children to be successful. The trouble is: how to do that. How do parents maintain positive mood in the face of all of the demands on them, both in the family and elsewhere? Some of us are better at this than others. And as far as I can tell, whether we manage our moods well or not is often a function of our own upbringing and whether we had access to comfort.

My work with mothers for more than 20 years has led me to the conclusion that family life revolves around the relative presence or absence of comfort. In families where comfort is generally available, stress levels are typically low and family members maintain positive mood most of the time. When a member of this kind of family experiences distress they have a sense that help is available, that the distress will not persist for long, and that they will not have to deal with it alone. The word comfort comes from a Latin word that meant to make strong.  A family where comfort is present is likely to be a strong family. Providing comfort is providing strength. There is a lot of safety in this kind of family system because there is always someone strong to turn to.

In families where comfort (access to the strength of others) is scarce or nonexistent, stress tends to be frequent and persistent. Family members have no one strong to turn to. When one family member goes into distress, others do too. Comfort is an antidote to stress, but when comfort is absent, distress becomes contagious. Everyone becomes distressed. Without the antidote the distress lingers and people become isolated in their unhappiness.

If we grew up in a family where comfort was a given, we will likely be good at giving comfort. We will have experienced the strength of others when we didn’t feel strong ourselves. We probably will not have spent long periods of time stressed and isolated. Because we will be pretty good at maintaining positive mood, when we have children they will have access to comfort, much as we did.

If we grew up with the absence of comfort, we will be hard pressed to provide it to our children, despite our best intentions and best efforts. We will too often be dealing with our own distress, and, lacking the antidote for our own problems, we will have few comforting solutions for our children’s distress.

Much of my work with families focuses on helping parents, particularly mothers, to address the effects of an absence of comfort in their lives and the negative impact it has on parenting. As parents learn to access comfort in their own lives, struggles with their children tend to moderate and then to fade away. Access to comfort reduces the persistence and intensity of stress in our lives and helps us to maintain positive mood and to develop a positive outlook on the future. Comfort, and the strength it reflects, makes the world a safer place. And a place where smiles are more likely to be present.