When it comes to our children and challenging behaviour, we often tell ourselves or hear from those close to us:

He’s just seeing what he can get away with.

She’s just trying to manipulate you.

He’s pushing all my buttons.

Terrible twos. Threenagers. “My kid is an a**hole”

We almost always assume that a child’s natural state is to be uncooperative and difficult and to get away with as much mischief and trouble as possible.

Guess what? They’re doing the best they can. These 6 six words will change everything. 

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Children want to be good. We are hard-wired to seek out connection with a caregiver. That is how we kept ourselves safe from the tigers! Harmony and connection with each other is our natural state. If children aren’t being good, it’s because they can’t manage to be good in that moment. (watch the video version of this post here)

It’s true that children misbehave all the time, even though they want to be good:

They are curious: “What happens if I pour this soap in the sink?”

They live in the moment: “Jumping on the couch is so much fun!”

They have big feelings: “I hate sharing with my sister!”

They have poor impulse control: “I know the rule but I can’t help hitting.”

So frustrating! But if we can remember in those difficult moments, “They’re doing the best they can,” everything changes. We can respond with the patience and compassion we need to solve whatever problem is at hand.

Scenario: Your 6 year old child won’t get dressed for school and you’re going to be late. What typically happens: you ask them a zillion times. Why they can’t do this one simple thing? They should be able to get dressed in about 2 minutes. They are driving you crazy! You lose your temper, they cry, and both of your days are off to a terrible start.

Try this: take a breath and remind yourself, “They’re doing the best they can.” Giving our child this benefit of the doubt gives us a huge dose of emotional generosity and empathy. If we are compassionate and empathetic, remembering they are doing the best they can, everything is easier.

Let’s look at what happens when we tell ourselves “They’re doing the best they can.”

We will be able to stay calm. We lose our tempers because we get caught up in the space between the “shoulds” (they should be able to get dressed!) and what is actually happening (they are not getting dressed.) If we believe that they are doing this on purpose to make our lives difficult- another example of how they just won’t listen!- we will have zero patience with our child and we will lose it! Yelling erodes our relationship with our child and makes us feel terrible. (If you need help stopping yelling, check out my free Stop Yelling At Your Kids e-course)

We will be better at problem solving. If we assume that they would do better if they could, we can be more empathetic. They aren’t giving us a hard time, they are having a hard time. When we are empathetic and can see things from our child’s point of view, we can get curious about a child who is struggling. Why can’t they get dressed? Perhaps getting dressed is one more step toward the door, school and away from you. A hug, a snuggle, some attention (dress them like a baby!) could be the solution. Perhaps they had a bad night sleep and are having trouble staying focussed. A visit from the silly Mrs. Drill Sergeant could get them back on track. Your compassion helps you give them the support they need to do the right thing.

We will increase good-will in our families. When we get in the habit of assuming our child is doing the best they can, we see everything in a more positive light. Positivity grows. 

We will look for the message behind the bad behaviour. If we assume our child wants to be good, and they aren’t managing, we see use it as a message to us. A parent I know told me she reminds herself, “Misbehaviour is a mystery.” What support does our child need to meet our expectations? What extra love and safety does our child need to cry out all those big feelings? Do we need to dial back the activities if our child is overwhelmed? What is our child’s behaviour telling us if they want to be good but can’t manage? How can we support them? The behaviour is a message, not a problem.

“They’re doing the best they can” makes staying patient easier and helps us find our empathy. We can more easily solve problems because we are on the same team as our child. When our children are behaving badly, we can use their behaviour as a message to get to the root of the problem. Positivity and good-will grow in our families.

And the added bonus? This shift in attitude grows to affect everything in our lives.

I feel better every day when I see those around me as doing the best they can. The positivity is reflected back. What seems like a selfless idea is in fact the best thing you can do to make yourself happier and make your life easier.

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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and parenting advice columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 12, 15, and 18). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Enjoy your kids again! Find her at sarahrosensweet.com