After the Show: Taming Chaotic Parenting Moments

We’ve all had those days when our homes seem to be descending into total chaos:  One child sings opera while standing on the dining room table, another cries in the corner wearing nothing but permanent marker on her face, then your two big kids decide to wash the toddler’s hair with toothpaste, after which they all attempt to scale your rose trellis.

What can we do to tame these chaotic moments, to restore peace and safety to our home environments?  This was the question I considered on my little segment with Greg & Lisa Popcak on More2Life on Thursday, September 13th.  You can listen to the archived show here.  Let’s review what we talked about during the show and fill in any gaps in the discussion.

Is the answer to lock the kids in their rooms or threaten them with pain and suffering?  I don’t think so!  It’s far more compassionate to look beneath the surface of their behavior to the message our kids are trying to send us.  Kids are usually not intending to drive us nuts when they “get up to no good”; they’re trying to meet a need however feckless or irrational those efforts might seem to us.  So ask yourself: What need is my child trying to meet by her behavior?

I first ask myself if my children’s physical needs are met:  Are they hungry or tired?  Are they coming down with something or in pain in some way?  If their physical needs are met, I turn to “SRC”: It’s easy to remember and helps me assess many situations calmly and quickly.  SRC stands for stimulation, recognition, and certainty.  These are the 3 human psychological hungers, which all need to be satisfied and in balance for optimal mental and physical health.

The human hungers were originally identified by Eric Berne (founder of transactional analysis), but I’ve come across explanations of  them in modern parenting books, including The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland and Growing Up Again by Jean Illsley Clark.  In short, our child’s misbehavior can be a signal to us that one of these needs is not being met or that these needs are out of balance.  Sometimes they are getting too much of one thing (stimulation) and are lacking in another (certainty).  Understanding a little about these needs can give us insight into the fascinating dynamic between our parenting choices and our children’s emotional response to those choices:

STIMULATION: All human beings need to feel energized and vital. We need some spontaneity and novelty in our lives sometimes. Are our children bored? Have they been doing the same activity for too long or every day?  Are they actually too stimulated? Children need some balance between lots of physical activity and play dates with other kids, and more quiet reflective time to play or explore alone.

RECOGNITION: All human beings need to feel valued and acknowledged.  Have we been too busy with our own affairs and ignoring our kids all day? Do we listen to our kids half-heartedly — not really hearing what they’re saying to us because we’re too distracted by grown-up stuff? Do our children feel nurtured and loved for who they are?

CERTAINTY:  All human beings need to know what the rules are and who is in charge. Have we provided appropriate structure for our child’s day?  Do we have clear rules and expectations and do we enforce them?  Do our children know they can count on us to take care of their needs?

So, for example, if I am having a frantic morning dealing with a clogged sink and a plumber’s phone tree that seems to keep growing, I can become very preoccupied.  Before I know it, murmurs of mischief begin to turn to a rumble. Maybe at this point, out walks my toddler with a new haircut followed by her big brother smiling proudly at his handiwork.  Instead of ringing big brother’s neck, I review SRC quickly in my mind to see if I can bring balance back to the fold.  Instead of punishing my child for cutting the toddler’s hair, I might recognize that I’ve been so preoccupied both mentally and with my time that I skipped snack and haven’t interacted with my children in any significant way for too many hours.  If I just put out the puzzles for small children and expect them to entertain themselves for two hours without encouragement and involvement from me, then I’m in for a rude awakening.  It ain’t gonna happen.

In this little scenario the kiddies are going to begin wandering the house looking for something to do to occupy themselves (stimulation hunger).  Kids who are bored will find some way to amuse themselves, period.  Because they have fewer resources than we do in making wise choices about how to spend their time, they can become noisy and aggressive, or will do something impulsive to feel a rush of energy.  And with Mom preoccupied they don’t know who’s really in charge (certainty hunger).  So I scoop up the kids and change the scene as quickly as possible: fix the stimulation and certainty imbalance.  “Kids,” I say, “Grab your coats; we’re going to hunt for ants.”  The sink will have to wait for a while.

By the way, I, of course, would want to discuss the behavior with my child if he has broken a rule about handling scissors without permission.  I remind him firmly about the rule and why that rule is in place.  I might tell him the scissors will now be placed in a very high place to keep everyone safe.  But I also show respect for him by looking for the reason for the behavior and recognizing my own part in creating an environment that wasn’t meeting his needs for safety and joy.

Dr. Popcak pointed out at the beginning of the show that when we’re stressed out, it’s easy to forget who we are, why we’re here, what we’re called to be.  This is so true, isn’t it?  We are children of God.  God has given us the grace to transform every moment into one that is joyful and abundant, including difficult parenting moments.  When we forget our purpose in this world, tough parenting moments can drag us down:  we tend to click into auto-mode and yell at our kids or deal with them in a way we might later regret.  By having strategies like SRC under our belts, we can tame those wild moments and allow God to do his work in and through our families.

You may notice you’re very natural at meeting one of the psychological hungers but are a little weaker in one or both of the other areas.  I’m strongest in meeting my children’s need for recognition, but I struggle with providing them certainty because I can be inconsistent about enforcing rules and boundaries.  Well, we all come to parenting with our own histories, personalities, and expectations, so it’s quite natural that we find it easier to meet some of our children’s needs than others.  When it’s hard, the effort is even more precious to God.  Carry on and be confident in His tender mercy and grace!

Photo credit: Alexander Shalamov ( 


  1. I thought the Popcaks whole show on the topic of chaos was really great! I need my own advice today: house guests, dog is in heat, allergies raging, etc. SRC, SRC, SRC. 🙂

  2. This is great, Kim! I can’t wait to listen to the radio show–this is an issue that is very relevant to me right now! Thanks so much!

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