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Measuring Defensiveness and Vulnerability in Your Child’s Intense Behaviors

When I work with parents whose kids are displaying aggressive or emotionally explosive behaviors, I'm always paying attention to what works best for this individual child to reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of these behaviors. But the question often arises:

How do you measure and define intensity?

Intensity is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to children's behavior, but let's define what we mean by it and how it shows up in your family life. I like to think of intensity in two different categories: defensiveness and vulnerability. Let's take a closer look at these and how they might help you tune into your child's progress.

Defensiveness: The Outward Storm

When your child is using outward-facing behaviors like aggression, screaming, cursing, or slamming doors to show you how they feel, they are in a state of defensiveness. I think of it as a "defiant tantrum" because the child needs to defend their position or point of view at all costs. And until they feel heard, they will have a hard time calming the storm.

Believe me, they are as overwhelmed inside as you are, and that intense feeling of defensiveness is like an emotional hurricane they'd rather not experience. Nobody would choose that.

You can reduce the defensiveness by leading with their point of view, not yours. Try to articulate what thoughts triggered the meltdown. Remember that your child might be feeling threatened or overwhelmed, and this is their way of trying to protect themselves. It's not the time to moralize about the behavior or explain your point of view. That comes after the defensiveness dies down.

Vulnerability: The Inward Struggle

On the other end of the intensity spectrum is vulnerability, which can look like crying, reaching for attention, whining, giving up, or even self-loathing talk like "I hate myself. I'm the worst." I call these “mushy tantrums.” While this type of vulnerability may give you more compassion for your child and be less challenging to handle than defiance and aggression, it's still worth tracking the intensity of it.

It can help to ask yourself: Are the vulnerable behaviors my child's way of moving through a big feeling and seeking connection from me as they do it, or are the behaviors indicative of an internal or concerning struggle? And which of those feels more intense to me?

If you get the sense that your child is having a disproportionate response to the trigger (as in, you think they're overreacting), be careful NOT to point that out in the moment, or you risk them returning to a state of defensiveness for their point of view (see “defiance tantrum” above).

Instead of accusing them of overreacting, which can make them feel insulted, alone, and ashamed, try to meet them where they are. Tell them it makes sense that they feel the way they do considering the circumstances. You don't have to agree with their response, but remember that it comes from a place of vulnerability and that can be scary for them. The behavior is just a reflection of their thoughts, habits, developmental stage, their past, their trust in you, their needs, and more. So take care!

Two Scales for Transformation

Defensiveness and vulnerability aren't opposing forces and they're not inherently wrong or bad. They're just your child's current way of expressing intense emotions. Recognizing and tracking the nature of the intensity can give you clues about how to respond, what helps calm the behavior, and whether you're making progress.

You might want to keep a journal where you write down each incident, what type of intensity you witnessed, and how intense it felt to you on a scale from 1 to 5. When choosing the number, notice if defensive behaviors feel more intense to you than vulnerable behaviors and how that compares with what your child might be feeling.

No matter how they behave, they'll benefit when you step in to help them navigate their emotions and then assess whether your approach is working or not...and then tweak accordingly. You're in it for the long game and sustainable change takes time.

And if you're looking for guidance or support in this journey, remember, I'm here for you. I provide the tracking sheets, the coaching, and the accountability to help you make sustainable change and reduce both the defiant tantrums and the mushy ones.


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