In this episode: Janet welcomes Dr. Mona Delahooke, a pediatric psychologist who works with children and teens with behavioral challenges and developmental differences. Mona’s compassionate approach to therapy is based on brain science. She describes disruptive behaviors as “just the tip of the iceberg,” important signals a child may be sending that are symptoms of an underlying issue. This is common ground for Janet, as she has long held that many behaviors which parents deem negative are rarely motivated, intentional, or consciously anti-social. They are, in fact, reflections of a dysregulated emotional state which needs to be acknowledged.
Transcript of “The Real Reasons for Your Child’s Behavior (A Science-Based Approach with Dr. Mona Delahooke)”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have the great pleasure of welcoming a special guest to the podcast, Mona Delahooke. Mona is a pediatric psychologist who has worked for over 30 years with children and teens with behavioral challenges and developmental differences. She uses the latest studies in brain science and human development.
She has a new book that I’m raving about and recommending at least twice a week or three times a week to parents that I work with: Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges. I’ve told Mona this, she’s going to change the world with this book and this perception of children. It resonates with me because it’s supports, in so many ways, the work of my mentor, Magda Gerber, her conclusions through her extensive observations and ultimately her approach to parenting infants and toddlers. I feel like this is the brain science behind some of the things that we’ve intuited to try to help parents. What Mona does in her book is she helps us to understand our children and also ourselves and our reactions to our children. This is how we make a difference in really helping children with their behavior. Thrilled to have her here.
Here she is, Mona Delahooke. Hi, Mona.
Mona Delahooke: Hi, Janet. Thank you so much for having me on.
Janet Lansbury: I’ve been looking forward to this for a very long time. I’ve been kind of savoring your book. Everything I’m reading is teaching me a lot. It’s actually pretty dense. You offer so much information in this book.
Mona Delahooke: I’m just so relieved and grateful that you’re resonating with it and so many people are. There’s a lot of stuff in there, but I wrote it with the intention of just helping create less suffering in the world and more joy. Thank you.
Janet Lansbury: Well, you definitely do that. Again, I’m going to recommend this to every parent or professional working with children. It’s a must.
I wanted to see if you could share a little about your professional journey. I found what you shared in your book very interesting and I don’t know that much about you in terms of how you came to these understandings. I would love to hear a little about that.
Mona Delahooke: Somehow, I just knew I wanted to be a psychologist when I was a teenager. I ended up becoming a psychologist pretty young, in my twenties, and I began working with teenagers, young adults, older children, because really traditional training in clinical psych is for children over five and everyone thereafter. I worked in the field for about a decade before I had my own children. I kept on hearing stories about some of the pain teenagers and adults had when they were children and even when they were younger children and things they wish their parents knew way back then. I’m a sensitive psychologist and person. I thought, well, I wonder if I could be more effective if I was working at younger levels like with parents with babies and toddlers.
After my third daughter was born, I decided to go back and go into more of a prevention kind of idea and become an infant mental health specialist. The training program I worked with was with founders of the infant mental health association, Zero to Three, in Washington, DC. I went there for several weeks every summer for five years. And In the meantime, I did two programs. One was at Cedar Sinai in LA for two years in infant mental health and the other one was at Children’s Hospital.
Long story short, what I learned in these programs changed my life. It wasn’t anything that I learned in psychology in graduate school. It basically was the beginning of what was known as “The Decade of the Brain” in the ’90s, and that was bringing the body and the brain together and seeing little people and babies, of course, and toddlers as a whole, in this wonderful way the body and the brain connect with each other through the information highway. We can read behaviors way before people are able to tell us what they need and talk to us.
So I became an infant and toddler specialist and my perspective started from there in understanding the role of stress and stress recovery, and how we can prevent misunderstanding in a lot of the ways we try to help children and teenagers that are ineffective. And I think that was kind of the magic behind some of the work I do. I gathered a lot of information from a lot of different fields and put it together in kind of a new way.
Janet Lansbury: Well, that definitely comes across in your book. You use so many case studies. You take off this veil of the way that we still as a society tend to see challenging behavior and show us what it really is and what it really means. And by seeing what it is and what it means, we can understand how to help children with it and how to stop it. It’s a much more thoughtful, aware approach than just trying to fix the behavior.
I really love something you said, too, just zooming to the end of your book, where you spent a little time talking about as adults, why we react to things the way that we do, how we get triggered into this … you take about the negativity bias that Rick Hanson, I guess that’s his term… and how we get triggered into wanting to fix that and change it. I thought that was fascinating, too, because just understanding why we have such a hard time. So we can not only not blame our children for their unconscious behavior, that so much has to do with stress and the way that they’re processing things they’ve been exposed to, but also understand that it’s not our fault either that we are reacting.
Mona Delahooke: Yes, and what the negativity bias is, is where we are reacting instinctively out of our desire to be good parents. This human tendency to look for the negative rather than the positive. It came out of what’s called our phylogenetic history. Our ancestors were ones who looked for threat and who successfully fought threat off, right? Many millions of years ago that threat would have been maybe a lion or tiger, but now we are in such a complex world. And if we understand that we have a tendency towards maybe seeing the negative rather than the positive, and then remembering that having compassion for ourselves as parents, and then opening to a whole new way to view behavioral challenges, a way that just turns on its head our notions about that intentionality that we often assume that children have.
Oftentimes behaviors, they’re not incentivized by children wanting to prove a point or test limits or do something wrong. There are so many more complex reasons that we see behaviors.
Janet Lansbury: Can you explain a little about the physical science behind what’s going on in those challenging behaviors? What’s going on when they are caught up?
Mona Delahooke: Absolutely. There are kind of these different states that people are in. A lot of people talk about it in terms of colors. One is where we feel like we can engage with others. We’re talking, we’re calm, we are conversant. That social engagement system when you’re able to engage, and smile, and feel calm, and take information in, we call that the green pathway, and that’s being in the green. There’s a scientific word for it, but we don’t have to know that.
We all know the fight or flight. That’s another pathway that’s in the brain and body connection. Here, children and adults, our heart starts to beat fast. We feel like we’re under attack, even if we may not be. Oftentimes, for children, we will see they’re crying, yelling, kicking, screaming, what our typical notion of a tantrum is, fast movements, and the child may be running away or otherwise having a really hard time. So we call that the red zone, the red pathway.
The third major one is where people shut down. That would include just giving up on social communication or trying to communicate. Luckily, that’s actually more of a rare state for children. But we do want to be aware if children are ever not communicating with us. I don’t mean like a regular teenage phase where you just don’t really want to talk to your parents. I’m talking more about checking out, where a child might look through you rather than at you, very flat and blank look on their face, slumped body position, and frozen, and kind of looking very, very sad. That would be another way our brain and body are in the world. And combinations of these things.
But the roadmap comes in when we link behaviors to what color the child and we are in. We always want to understand the answer to a very big question and that is, is the child experiencing a response to stress, which would put them in the red pathway, feeling anxious or hypervigilant, or are they feeling socially engaged with us? Then if they are, then we would treat those behaviors very different than we would treat a child who was in the red zone.
We actually use these markers of what’s known as the autonomic nervous system, but just think about it as our nervous system, to understand, for example, when we try to reason with a child or when we don’t try to reason with the child and we just maybe hold them, or gaze at them with loving eyes, or sing them a song. So we kind of use the child as their own roadmap for how we can connect with them.
Janet Lansbury: Then what do you think about behaviors where a child does not seem stressed, doesn’t seem like they’re on the red pathway, but they’re still doing things that they know the parent doesn’t want them to do?
Mona Delahooke: I love those kinds of behaviors because-
Janet Lansbury: Me too. It’s about children wanting to learn from us.
Mona Delahooke: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: How do we respond to things…. What kind of leader do they have?
Mona Delahooke: Well, once we figure that out, check out the body signals because sometimes a child might look green but they’re actually red or even yellow, right? They may have a smirk on their face, but if you put your hand on their back or on their chest, you feel their heart beating really fast. We really want to make sure.
Neurodivergent children, children with brain wiring differences, their facial expression may not match their internal state.
The body language, the tone of voice, and the facial expression is the polygraph for how the child feels inside. I explain that in the book.
But having said that, if the child is in that green zone and they are going through the natural testing, like not following our directions, or doing something that we don’t like or that’s not part of our family’s values, I love your advice along these lines that I’ve read in your book. Being a leader and staying calm ourselves and patient and letting our child know that we will give them a redirection if it’s something that is important for us to let them know that that’s not okay. It’s just how we go about it. It doesn’t have to be with a hammer. It can be with our relationship.
Janet Lansbury: I love what you said about the smile because I’m often asked about that. “Well, my child is smiling. How could this be about stress? How could they be uncomfortable here?” I sometimes think of it as when we’re on that roller coaster that we really shouldn’t have gone on. It was a little too much for us, and we might be smiling, but it’s not that centered, calm, joyful-from-within smile.
Mona Delahooke: Absolutely. It’s a stress smile.
Janet Lansbury: Yes.
Mona Delahooke: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: Similar to when children are tickled, or thrown in the air sometimes as babies.
Mona Delahooke: Absolutely.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, it’s not a comfortable place. And for parents to understand that, that their child isn’t evil and it’s not that they’re really enjoying hitting you.
Mona Delahooke: Sometimes, too, with kids when they do something that is not voluntary, that is part of that stress response system. Say they hit you or do something that really is wrong, and then you let them know, and then they laugh or smile… I have a lot of parents who asked me that, too. That can enrage a parent because it’s not a response that we’re expecting.
Janet Lansbury: Right. It does seem really mean and cruel, or we could see it that way.
Mona Delahooke: It’s disturbing. I just want to encourage parents that you don’t have to be too concerned with that, because oftentimes that is crossing over very quickly with embarrassment and shame. What comes out when the child is in distress inside is inappropriate emotion that doesn’t reflect the child’s intentions. If they’re feeling really embarrassed and shamed, they may giggle or laugh, but it doesn’t mean that they are not thinking, Oh no, I’m kind of lost here. We remain that beacon, that strength. Staying positive and calm ourselves, but appropriate to the situation, and guiding them.
Janet Lansbury: Right. It also feels like, even if it is more of just an exploratory thing that our child is doing, there still is an element of discomfort in there when they get a puzzling reaction. It’s not necessarily that I’m on the red pathway and that I have a lot of stress, but it’s just a little weird that you reacted that way. It’s like a little uncomfortable. I’m still impulsively trying it again.
I almost feel like all these behaviors are impulsive. Every time a child does something that they know that we don’t want them to do, it’s impulsive because they haven’t quite gotten a comfortable answer about it from us.
Mona Delahooke: Absolutely. That brings up this word, “neuroception,” that I talk about. What neuroception is, is that human beings are always being informed about their level of feeling comfort or discomfort, right? What you just said reminds me so much of this reading that we all do, but especially children because they’re always reading the world and they’re reading our emotional tone. They’re also taking in the world through their sensory systems. So much information is getting processed for little humans. Sometimes they get a read.
Think of neuroception is like a little TSA agent or a little thermometer and it’s subconscious. This is going on in the background. But if that awareness picks up a goofy signal, either of, I’m not feeling comfortable, or, Ugh, this is just not a comfy zone for me, they go out of the green and into some sort of yellow, orange place. Then they will have what looks like impulsive behaviors. But there’s actually a neurobiological reason for those behaviors.
It’s brilliant because human beings have this built-in threat detection system. So that’s why I talk a lot about giving children the benefit of the doubt because they’re responding to their threat detection system and every child is going to have different settings.
So, again, that feedback to the child that you are safe and I’m calm…
Janet Lansbury: Yes. I am unthreatened.
Mona Delahooke: Yes. You are safe and I’m not threatened. Because it’s so easy for us… As a parent, I know I did this. It’s hard to keep our calm all the time. It’s hard to not react impulsively ourselves. We’re human beings, too.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely.
Mona Delahooke: Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: Then when should a parent or professional be concerned that they need more support than just reading a book ,or talking to someone like me that can sort of help with some behaviors, but I don’t have a background in neurodiverse children or children with autism. Where should parents begin to understand if this is a concern around their child and how to get help?
Mona Delahooke: To me, if you have something that you’re concerned about with your child and it’s bothering you or causing you worry or concern, it’s always fine to reach out for support. If you find answers in a book or general parenting advice, that’s great. But if you don’t, if your child has behaviors that you don’t understand, know that there are reasons and there are resources.
I’d say, first of all, if you have a child who is having behaviors that don’t seem to have a reason or a cause that you can easily identify, in other words, if the child is getting triggered into either different emotional states or behaviors that are confusing, then we would want to look below the surface. There are millions of differences in children that can cause those behaviors. We’d want to look a little bit deeper. And sometimes that might be asking your pediatrician. Sometimes that might be asking if you feel like the child is sensitive to noises or certain types of touch, certain types of clothing, experiences like brushing their teeth or having their hair washed, very large reactions to certain everyday experiences. You might want to contact a qualified occupational therapist who understands sensory processing.
If you are concerned about your child’s emotional life, if you’re concerned that your child seems very sad or overly active, like an engine that can’t slow down, then you may want to ask again your pediatrician or a developmental child psychologist, just to put your mind at ease and to mostly get reassured and find out if there’s anything else you could be doing.
I’d say trust your instinct as a parent. If you’re confused about something, you don’t have to worry alone. Reach out and get some supportive advice. Most of all, understand that every sort of difference has a supportive, positive, hopeful intervention, interaction, and approach. Children’s brains and bodies are so open to support. It shouldn’t be scary. It should be just getting information and having just a lot of hope and knowing that you will understand your child better and better as they get older.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, so that feeling of openness towards our child… that, instead of fear, which is very, very hard for all of us, I think. One of my favorite messages in your book is about the best therapeutic tool that we have, which is ourselves and our relationship with the child, and our presence in those moments and being unthreatened ourselves by the behavior, which means not blaming ourselves. It’s not a reflection of something that we have to jump into far in the future. It’s just right now what’s going on.
If we could have that curiosity rather than fear around it, it would help us to be that person children need, and really help them with their stress and things that are making them so uncomfortable, making it hard for them to be the people they want to be, which is behaving beautifully. I love that you emphasize that in your book that every child wants to be doing the right thing. They don’t want to be doing that behavior.
Mona Delahooke: Yes, children want to please their parents. And it’s so easy to personalize our children’s behaviors. I know the thing that would get me revved up and in the red zone would be when my child would do something and then I’d feel this need to correct it right away, because I want to raise them right. This responsibility of, oh my gosh, you have to understand this. You can’t go and do that in the world, you know?
We have this protective instinct for our children to raise them such that they will be safe and accepted in the world. We have such a big responsibility as parents. But you’re absolutely right. If we remember that we are the therapeutic tool, and that means our tone of voice, our facial expression, our body language, that’s the first thing that another human gets from us even before words come out. That’s why I call this a tool. The way we look at our child. I think I posted someone’s a blog post yesterday. “Does your face light up when you see your child?”
If we’re in control, we are going to be able to navigate figuring out really if the child is in a stress behavior, which is kind of known as “bottom up” behavior or if the child is “top down,” if they’re able to reason with you and have a discussion with you or not. Sometimes we just need to back down and not even have the discussion until the child is back open.
Janet Lansbury: Right. The way to get that presence that you’re talking about is this perspective. It’s this understanding of what is beyond the behavior, and that what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg of something important that we need to understand about our child. That will help us to let go that fear. That’s the key — the way that we see. You’ve said that. I say that a lot. The way that we see the behavior is what’s going to give us that feeling of calm around it, because we are not taking everything they do as this horrible sign that we’re doing something wrong and that we’ve got to fix something. We’re seeing, wow, this is a three dimensional person with all systems going that they’re supposed to have.
I also love in your book that you say that all three of those pathways, none of them are bad. They’re just different ways that we can be. There’s no judgment on them.
Mona Delahooke: Yes, they’re different ways that humans experience the world. We would not want everyone to be green all the time. You wouldn’t be alive if you were, right? You wouldn’t be aware. Of course, it’s not as comfortable, but the whole point is that we come to this new appreciation of all behaviors and throw our notions of appropriate and inappropriate and rather look at behaviors through this new lens of how they are a tribute to human adaptation. And how brilliant these behaviors are because they protect our children. They’re not meant to disappoint us or make us angry. They are actively protecting our children. Once we understand that, you’re right. It really makes us more calm. At least it did for me and for many of the parents that I work with. Once we kind of go through and dismantle the notions that unfortunately are promoted a lot, even in the education system where certain behaviors, parents are called from the school, and oftentimes those negative behaviors are the child’s protective adaptive mechanism to manage their world. It is a paradigm shift. It’s kind of a mind bender, but it’s pretty exciting. It’s pretty exciting. It keeps us much calmer as parents.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. You go into great detail in the book and you illustrate with all these specific examples of people that you’ve been working with, and the children that you’ve helped, and the lives that you’ve changed. I really hope people are going to read this book. It’s got something helpful to say to anyone whose around children, ever. I can’t recommend it enough. Thank you so much, Mona, for giving us your time, and your wonderful expertise, and your helpful message for parents.
Mona Delahooke: Thank you, Janet. It’s such a joy to be able to speak with you. Thank you for all you do for parents, as well. It’s just wonderful to not be alone and get support in all these different, wonderful new ways.
Janet Lansbury: That’s how I feel, too. Thank you again. Bye bye.
I really hope some of that is helpful. And by the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening! And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.
And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks again for listening. We can do this.