River District Counselling & Wellness

Emotional Whack-a-Mole

“What do you want?” is probably a question that you ask your kids all the time. 

“Why are you throwing a tantrum? Why did you throw your cup on the ground? Why are you sneaking out of the house? WHY?” Remember the game Whack-a-Mole? That’s pretty much what it’s like. Figuring out your kids’ wants, needs, emotions is exactly like that. Maybe you’ll hit some of them, maybe you won’t.

The question is, what are they seeking? What do they want? We don’t have the magic wand to make it easy to raise your family, but we CAN give you understanding. Alfred Adler, a famous psychologist provided light on why kids behave the way they do. Their behaviours are always purposeful, goal-oriented, and seeking something. As you read, you’ll gain tricks to use so you might be able to Whack the Mole.


Do you recognize these behaviours? The more typical ones are screaming, yelling, calling you constantly, wanting help with something they are capable of doing or invade your personal bubble. This is probably not shocking to you that your kids want your attention. Obviously, there are appropriate and inappropriate times for attention. If your child is misbehaving, rolling on the ground screaming and yelling, this is not the time for you to give them attention. You still need to connect, remember - connect before you direct (our previous blog). Gary Landreth, the founder of the Center for Play Therapy in Texas, developed A-C-T for parents to use within the home.

  • Acknowledge the feeling
    Communicate the limit 

  • Target acceptable alternatives

Start with “You are really upset right now. It’s okay to want my attention, AND screaming and yelling make it hard to understand what you want. You can take your time to gather your tricky feelings and I will be ready when you are.”

This method also works with teens. Simply start with “I know you’re angry and yelling about your limited screen and internet access, but I am having a hard time talking to you. You and I agreed that you would complete your responsibilities during this time (homework, chores). You can choose to fill your time with some of the things you need to get done or we can brainstorm stuff to do for the next little bit.”

If you notice your kid is yelling louder and louder; the resistance is getting stronger while the tone is getting harsher then it might be a sign that they want to be in power. They want it their way or the highway!


We already know they want to take charge of their lives and be their own boss. Adler’s research to understand human nature was grounded in gaining power, having control and acting on things that directly impact one’s life. This is where the power struggle begins, Counterwill gets activated and this is where it becomes exhausting to parents. Remember our last blog, we talked about giving some decision-making power to your kid… this is the moment for that! 

Recognize the power struggle, take a small moment to acknowledge that they’re trying to become their own person (be proud of them!), take a deep breath and remind yourself this is the opportunity for them to practice autonomy. This is an opportunity to listen and be supportive, even if you don’t agree. The top 3 priorities for children and youth are to feel belonging, have experiences and feel connected with their peer group. If your kid says “All of my friends are online right now and I’m the only one who can't play with them!” then clearly they want that belonging and connection. Step in - be flexible. Provide time-limited options such as “If you go on the internet now, you need to complete all your chores before 9 pm, however you choose to organize your day is fine but it’s your responsibility to get it done.” 

How many times have you thought that your kids are purposely tormenting you? Making you feel annoyed and frustrated that they say things to get under your skin. Think about times when you were hurt and feeling a bit revengeful. Maybe you put full effort and didn’t get recognized, heard and understood. You are left feeling disappointed, embarrassed and inferior about yourself and even in the smallest way,  might want revenge. Very often, these revengeful behaviours happen because we don’t know how to fully express what is happening for us. What we actually want is to build the connection that was damaged. 

That’s kind of what happens here. In adults, we might slam cupboards and place things down just a little harder to garner attention. In children, this might look like emptying a sippy cup filled with juice on the floor after having something taken away. It might look like a teenager stealing something out of your wallet after you cut off their allowance. 

Sometimes you don’t realize both of you have entered into this negative cycle, without going through the things you read above. Next thing you know, words are flying and they’re ones that are hurtful and harmful: “You never listen to me! You’re a bad person! Why do you have to be like this?” Hear your kids saying this to you? Now say those words as a parent! These phrases go both ways! Sometimes, we take things very personally because we have made a large emotional investment into things.

Here are ways for you to approach this: Recognize they want connection. Slow yourself down. Step back and recognize you both don’t feel connected, heard or understood. Prevent yourself from saying more harmful things or damage this relationship further. Use “I…” statements instead of “You …” statements so the blame is not being placed on the other individual. Listen to how the person communicates the emotion, not the activity. For example, as a parent, you can say “I don’t really like how we are talking to each other right now because I think we are not speaking the same language” or “I feel that we are both very hurt right now, let’s take some cool downtime and come back to this later.” 

You have been reading about connecting with each other, and you also hear phrases like “Go away, I don’t want to talk to you anymore, leave me alone.'' These give you mixed signals. How do you leave them alone, but still give them the attention they are wanting? You might think, “If I leave them alone, they’re not going to do anything but play video games and they’ll never learn to be an adult in the functioning world.” Or you think “Isn’t this teaching them to be lazy and throw a tantrum to avoid doing anything?” You’re worried that your kids will carry out these habits into their daily adult life and not become functioning adults

We get that. To prevent that from happening, try not sweeping things to the side, you must go back into the conversation to repair. It just needs time. Model to your child/youth the importance of building healthy communication skills. Alone time is valuable because when you show it is acceptable to take space apart and regroup, they will learn to approach other situations in the same way too. 

After some cooldown time, you are ready to repair and reconnect through using the A-C-T method. Allow your kids to assume the power and autonomy to be their own person and the responsibility of this new power. Hopefully this gives you a break from being the 'responsible one' all the time!

Conflicts are a natural part of parenting. If we can understand the drive behind the behaviours then we can come from a place of understanding and compassion that will deepen our connections with each other. 

Happy Parenting, JC. 

Resource: http://www.adlerian.us/child.htm