Is my child’s behaviour good or bad? Perhaps it isn’t either, maybe it is just adaptive?

How can you help your child to cope with change and new experiences?

Many of us have recently experienced the shift to the routine of school and work life after the Summer Holidays. This big transition can often be bumpy and moving from holidays to routine, and the small transitions such as leaving the house for school, are often moments that children, and teenagers appear to behave in ways which could be thought about as “good or bad behaviour”.  This way of thinking might be useful in terms of boundaries, but perhaps it doesn’t help us enough in understanding why this behaviour happens or thinking about ways things could be managed better.

A teenager who struggles to get out of bed, or whose attitude is a bit more “fighty” just at the moment they need to leave the house, is a picture which I am sure is familiar to many of us.  Why does this happen?

In evolutionary terms, these responses, which could be thought about as being adaptive – meaning useful for survival, may have been really helpful; the people who stayed asleep in the cave and hid, and the ones who left the cave with a little too much attitude, are probably the ones who didn’t get eaten by lions. “But there aren’t any lions in year 9?” I hear you say.  And you would be right.  However, the emotional, or more instinctive parts of our brains are still wired for survival, and it is this part of the brain which sometimes responds in a survival type of way when a teenager is confronted with going into school.  Even though there are rarely any real threats, we need to understand that, for example, the bodily experience of being 11 years old and five foot one and being amongst 1,400 other pupils, may well illicit these survival responses and make it difficult for a young person to feel safe.

The emotional world is very much tied in with a bodily sense of the world.  This is why a physical sense of things for young people can have such strong resonance in terms of safety.  For younger children, this could explain what might seem like an irrational insistence on wearing a vest, or taking an object from home into school with them.  For teenagers it could explain always wanting to carry a heavy bag or travelling to school with a hood up in all weathers (there is a reason Kenny from Southpark, a young person with a keen sense of his own safety, always has his hood up!)

Perhaps it is useful to think in terms of what makes children and teenagers feel safe in these situations; to allow some space to attend to these feelings of uncertainty to try and connect and engage with the more emotional, instinctive parts which are being activated.  Allowing some space for thought around these feelings, might allow some of the air to be let out from the balloon of the situation, hopefully before it explodes!

How can you support your child?

A moment of transition for children and young people, is often also the same moment of transition for parents and carers in a family.  For example, trying to get to work as young people are going out to school.  If you are stressed and running late yourself (easily done), the feelings of uncertainty or worry in a young person will be difficult to give attention to.  Try and create a situation where you are calm enough yourself to have some space to think together.

The initial response from a child or young person in these moments is probably going to be the emotional response, this is because (in very simple terms) the first response will be a bodily emotional response, the brain or mind catches up afterwards and then a style of thinking is established.  This is why it is so important there is a little bit of time for a child or young person to process or unpack the initial feeling with someone.

For example, a lost planner might seem truly disastrous in the first instance, but with time, and an adult to help them find space for some more practical rational thinking to happen (are there are other solutions, will the consequences of not having a planner actually be that bad?), things will usually seem less like the world will end.  In time the hope is a young person begins to recognise these strong initial responses themselves and as they absorb the experience of thinking with another, they will hopefully build more capacity for managing and rationalising a more moderate response on their own.

Final thoughts

These blog posts are just a starting point for beginning to think about the way a young person’s behaviour can be connected to their emotional world.  We have very, very briefly explored the beginnings of some ideas around; how feelings around safety are tied to an emotional, instinctive part of ourselves, and how a connection to the physical world around us can be particularly important when thinking about tricky situations.

Our team of experienced therapists at our Children’s and Young People’s Therapy Service can help young adults, children and families to guide them through these kind of issues by providing bespoke therapeutic support.

If you would like to find out more about the services we offer, or how we could help your children and your family, please get in touch by using the form below, or emailing or