Emotion Drives Behavior: Especially The Behaviors That Annoy You, Confuse You and Scare You The Most…

Posted: July 20, 2012 in For Educators, For Parents and Guardians
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You see the cuts on your 14 year old daughters arm for the first time.  Your 17 year old son won’t come home until after midnight every night and when he does, he smells of alcohol.  You get your 15 year old kids report card in the mail and they failed all but one of their classes and the one class they passed was phys. ed.  You can’t get your 10th grade students to do their homework or stop talking in class long enough to absorb the material they should have learned 3 years ago.  You hear from your 15 year old client that they’ve already had 9 sexual partners.  Whether you are the parent, their teacher or their counselor, you are going to feel things when you find out what your kids are doing.  You’re going to feel many things. You’re going to feel panic, shame, disappointment, anxiety and frustration and you’re going to feel the pull to react from these feelings.  The urge to yell and cry and fix and shame and pity will be strong.  The temptation to throw the biggest consequences you can think of will feel irresistible or you’ll feel the urge to try to hug their problems away.  You may want to get on the internet right away to find the toughest boot camp or you may feel compelled to call information to find the closest psychiatrist who can medicate your kid…

… And this is precisely the moment you need to find a way to NOT do something.  As hard as it will be, you as the authority figure will need to figure out how to stop before you react emotionally so you can position yourself to have the greatest impact you can on your child’s behavior.  You will need to stay focused on your goal of helping them develop more than on the discomfort of feeling what your feeling.  At this moment, you need to understand two things; one, that your emotions and needs are trying to drive your behaviors, and two; that there are most definitely emotions and needs driving your children’s behaviors.

Our children and students are acting in ways that we don’t understand. They’re making decisions that scare us and they’re doing things that confuse us.  They’re reactive and impulsive and self-destructive and we feel helpless to have the impacts we want to have.  We’re feeling more disconnected than ever from the young people we know. We get frantic and feel a sense of urgency and we start to feel hopeless and powerless to wake them up to the short and long-term consequences of their actions… which is why we need to slow down and simplify.

First, ask yourself what an emotion is.  Right now, think about what it means to feel and recognize that our actions are separate from our feelings.  Think about the sensations in your body when you’re angry.  Think about the tightness in your chest when you’re anxious, the pressure behind your eyes when you’re sad or the heaviness in your limbs when you feel exhausted.  Remember what it was like when you were young and you felt stupid, ugly, unprepared or misunderstood.  Remember how those feelings drove your words and your actions.  Maybe you fought.  Maybe you buried yourself in your studies.  Maybe you drank, smoked pot, broke curfew or maybe you tried to be the perfect son or daughter.

Now, think about why you’re reading this blog.  What emotion compelled you to take the time to look for and read these words?  Was it fear?  Was it curiosity? Was it frustration, helplessness or professional obligation? Was it hope for a closer, stronger relationship with your child or student?  Too infrequently do we stop to think about the emotion that drove us to take a certain action.  Too often are we reacting to and dealing with our kids’ behaviors instead of the underlying forces driving them.

For all of us, especially impulsive youth, how we feel, how we want to feel, and how we don’t want to feel fuels what we do and the decisions we make.  This is our foundation.  This is the lens we need to see our kids and students through, and once we begin seeing the true forces motivating their strange and harmful behaviors, we’ll be far more prepared to influence them. Below are a few behaviors we’re seeing in our kids and some of the emotions driving the behaviors.  Remember, sometimes behaviors are in pursuit of certain feelings, and sometimes the behavior is trying get rid of certain feelings.

  • Having sex with multiple partners to quiet loneliness, feel more attractive or feel more loved… or all of the above.
  • Disruptive classroom behavior to hide the shame of not knowing or to feel more powerful and influential over others… or all of the above.
  • Using drugs and alcohol to numb the enduring pain of trauma or to take a vacation from the stress of ones life… or both.
  • Cutting ones own skin to distract oneself from feeling overwhelmed or to feel more in control of their pain… or both.
  • Joining a gang to feel more respected and connected or to feel less lonely and alone… or all of the above.
  • Fighting to release frustration, to feel more powerful or to find a skill that allows them to feel unique… or all of the above.

If we look at any action we take, deliberate or instinctive, driving it is some emotion.  Defiant actions are often driven by the need to feel more powerful.  Self-destructive actions are frequently driven by the need to avoid pain.  Dating can silence the feeling of loneliness, taking a higher paying job can help us feel more secure and lending a helping hand to someone can make us feel useful, thoughtful and generous.  We’ll read because we want to feel inspired, watch romantic comedies to feel joy and hope and we’ll exercise to feel more energetic and sturdy.  We often do things or react without stopping to think about the forces driving our behaviors, but if we can find a way to know more clearly why people do what they do, we’ll significantly increase the chances of having a positive impact on whomever it is we wish to impact.

Apply the framework of “emotion drives behavior” to the young people in your life.  Think about their behaviors and ask yourself what emotion could possibly be driving them.  But be careful not to believe too much in your own theories.  Remember that your explanations are only theories, and that their explanations and reflections hold the keys to their changed behavior.  Once we are more clear about the origin of their behavior or the need they’re trying to meet, than we can communicate with them in more constructive ways and we’ll be better equipped to use our authority and wisdom in ways that are in fact in their best interest.

Always remember to look beneath the behavior.  Be as curious as possible when a child tells you they need something.  A child who says they “need” new clothes may be looking to feel more confident, accepted, and/or less insecure.  A student who says they “need” to change their teacher or is acting out in class may be feeling doubtful about their abilities in a particular subject.  If we’re trying to influence our kids’ behaviors, we need to keep in mind that there is always an emotional reason for their behaviors or stated needs.

As parents, teachers, counselors or caretakers, remaining mindful of the connection between emotional needs and actions will keep us constructive and productive. For each person and child, the emotions driving the behaviors may be different.  Understanding your child or student and the larger context of their lives will help you to more accurately identify the underlying motivations of their actions.  A student raised around violence may be conditioned to feel powerless and act out in their own violent ways to feel more powerful.  A child whose emotional needs were ignored or dismissed by parents might be conditioned to feel invisible and lonely and may seek connection by engaging in sexual activity before they are ready.  Always remember that we won’t know until we find out from them, why they’re doing what they’re doing and what feelings or needs are driving their behaviors.

Being able to remain thoughtful during emotionally charged interactions is hard (and feels impossible at times), but it empowers us to remain more purposeful and influential.  Being able to reflect about our own histories with different emotions prevents us from becoming too righteous or enabling.  Keep in mind that we’re all conditioned in our own ways to cope with different feelings. One person may reject sadness while another person may wallow in it.  One person may take their hurt out on others while a different person may take their hurt out on themselves.  The less we judge the chosen behavior and the more we seek to understand the emotion driving it… the closer we’ll be to our kids and the more influence we’ll have as we pursue their empowerment.

I’ve heard many times from parents that they think their children are “just trying to get back at them” by acting in destructive or lazy ways.  If you as an adult have ever thought that “revenge” was the emotion driving your child’s behaviors… look a little deeper.  Young people only seek “revenge” when they feel they have been harmed in some way. Whether you as the adult agree or disagree with your kids’ behavior or their explanation, remaining more curious than irritated keeps you in a position of influence.  So instead of accusing them of being full of sh&t, be curious about why your child might feel compelled “to get back at you”.  Ask yourself if you somehow misused or abused your power at some point and made them feel powerless.  Ask yourself, rather than react with shock, judgment or righteousness, what emotion could be driving their actions and what approach you should take that maximizes the likelihood that they begin trusting you enough to re-connect with you. Getting defensive or righteous when our kids accuse us doesn’t help us, our relationships or our abilities to influence their behaviors. Here are a few more behaviors and some of the common emotions that drive the behaviors.

  • Truancy to avoid facing the hopeless feeling that comes with having fallen far behind at school.
  • Defiance to authority and rules to feel less powerless or more free or less constrained or more independent… or all of them.
  • Insulting, teasing and bullying others to feel more powerful or less victimized… or both.
  • Cheating on tests to feel the pride of a parent or to feel clever… or both.
  • Playing excessive video games to feel more in control or to avoid the frustration of a life where you never feel demoralized that you can get ahead… or both.
  • Silence and isolation to avoid the fears and uncertainties that come with relationships.
  • Watching excessive television to minimize anxiety or feel comforted by something familiar… or both.
  • Bragging and boasting to feel more confident and less insecure.
  • Obsession with style to feel more attractive or distinct.
  • Eating disorders to feel more in control.
  • Suicidal ideation to feel less constrained and more free.
  • Speaking threats and showing intimidating behaviors to feel more impactful on others.
  • Following the negative or disruptive behaviors of others to feel more belonging.
  • Running away to feel more independent or less dependent or to escape the feeling of confinement, loneliness or fear… or all of the above.

Remember, every child is different. Sons and daughters are different from their parents, and students and clients are different from their teachers and counselors. We all respond differently to the people and situations in our lives and we all deal with or avoid our emotions in our own ways.  Which is why it is so important that we avoid imposing our feelings and beliefs on our kids and simply try to understand what life is like for them.  Having grown up in a culture that undervalues communication and emotional awareness and glorifies aggression and reactivity, many of us, and especially our kids, never learned to truly connect with others or how to be thoughtful and reflective.  This chapter was about stirring you to think differently about the forces that drive your behaviors and those of the kids in your lives.  So pay attention to your kid.  Be curious about your students.  Try to understand the emotions driving the behaviors of the young people in your lives because they are undoubtedly different from your own. And when you’re tempted to freak out because you found out your kid is having sex or doing drugs, or you go home from school having exhausted yourself trying to teach the class from hell, first, catch your breath and quiet your brain as best you can, and then make your reflections and interactions about your kids.  If you can keep this curiosity and commit to their development, then you will have influence.


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