Whether it's a one-off in the terrible twos or an ongoing battle, many of us have come face-to-face with behavioural challenges in our children.
When these behaviours are consistent, modern society has taught us that our children are misbehaving because there is “something wrong with them”. However, Joe Newman – the brains behind the Raising Lions Method – is here to tell us otherwise. Joe’s approach begins with the understanding that our children’s behaviour is motivated by logical, sometimes sophisticated thinking. Using his Raising Lions Method, Joe helps parents to help their children to develop self-motivated, harmonious relationships at home and in school. (Which, yes, involves beautiful behavioural improvements.) With real-life experience from his own childhood – as well as countless clients and studies – Joe and his team teach parents why children do what they do, and provides the tools to help them control their own behaviour to become stronger, happier and more successful participants in their world. We spoke to Joe about the parenting and behavioural questions that keep us up at night. From medication to boundaries and beyond – this is an unmissable interview we know you’ll enjoy.
Can you explain what The Raising Lions method is and what it sets out to do?
My method shows parents and teachers how to set boundaries and limits while simultaneously giving children autonomy and respect. It was born out of my experiences as that kid who was impossible to control, so initially, it was a purely intuitive response to what I needed as a child but didn’t get. The Raising Lions method grew into a clear set of tools for turning around difficult problem children. Gradually, it became a simple and effective classroom management approach. One basic tool is to give short breaks in response to problematic behaviour. When done correctly, children quickly learn to self-regulate and manage themselves in a way that’s aware and respectful of the people around them. The Raising Lions method sets out to do a few things:
- It gives parents the tools to turn around difficult children with behaviour problems.
- It’s a classroom management approach that motivates children to self-regulate and self-discipline so teachers can teach.
- It’s an overall parenting approach that raises independent thinkers who are psychologically fit and prepared for the world.
A lot of your work focuses on modern day parenting and how to fix common misconceptions about “problem” children. Why is this a more prevalent problem today than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
My approach is based on an assumption that behaviour-problem children are very intelligent and very astute – not the opposite. Children are changing. They’re becoming more sophisticated, more articulate, more aware of their power, but less in control of it. This is why we’re seeing more behavioural problems. Not because more children have suddenly become disordered. Children’s behaviours are their way of asking questions about how the world works, about who has power, and what are the causes and effects. They’re experimenting with the limits of their own power and trying to understand yours. “I’m here, I have power! Are you here? Do you have power?” When we fail to create real action consequences, children feel as though they are the only ones with power and this causes anxiety, defiance and more boundary testing. These moments of conflict and testing boundaries are learning moments that children need and we shouldn’t avoid them. Children are little scientists. They’re researchers who are constantly observing what happens when they do things. But today, parents and teachers are taught to explain everything, tell them in detail what’s “right” and what’s “wrong”. We’re talking to children like preachers but they are listening like scientists – it’s two different languages. If your children are motivated by your approval this may work, but if not, you’re in trouble. Here’s an example: Your 4-year-old throws a toy across the room. You tell her not to throw her toys. She does it again. You explain that if she breaks her toys, she won’t be able to use them. She does it again. You tell her she’s marking up your walls. She does it again. You tell her she just needs to stop now. She does it again. You warn her that if she keeps doing it, you’re going to take the toy away. She does it again. You tell her she needs to give you the toy and she apologises and promises she won’t do it again. The results of her observations? There are no adverse effects from throwing toys six times!
What are some of the common markers that identify children as having behavioural issues. How do we tell these apart from regular childhood tantrums and the like?
Perhaps one of the problems with modern parenting is that we look at some behaviour as normal and some as disordered, when in most cases it’s really a matter of degree. Some children are just willing to go to greater lengths to get what they want. If their tantrums succeed, this begins a pattern that creates more anxiety and more acting out. And before you know it, behaviours have escalated into something that looks abnormal or disordered. My method is based on a belief that the vast majority of children aren’t disordered but are experimenting with different behaviours to see how they work. If a child observes that when mum thinks they don’t understand something she removes the consequence, that child may pretend not to understand in other moments to see if this is an effective way to avoid difficulty or consequence (I call this a passive tantrum). And if mum sees this feigning inability as real inability, she’ll likely start creating accommodations when she should be giving consequences. I’m always sceptical of calling something a disorder until I’ve seen how the behaviours change when we remove all the things that might be motivating them. My approach always starts with an assumption of order, not disorder. How do you tell the difference between “normal” and “disordered” behaviour? By observing how your child’s behaviours change and adapt when you use my methods. Create and enforce clear, motivating effects/consequences for the child’s actions, identify their autonomy, and remove the moralising, judgment and coercion from our interactions with them.
Setting boundaries is an important part of parenting and something you speak about often - what sort of boundaries should we be setting for our kids in everyday life?
While there are some general guidelines at each age, children can adjust to all kinds of different expectations. Parents are led to believe there is some magic, agreed upon set of fair behaviour expectations – there’s not. The best guide for the boundaries you should have for your children are boundaries that honour YOUR needs and the needs of your community. One day you’ve got a migraine headache and you need your kids to be quiet in the house, the next day the headache is gone and you don’t care if they make a lot of noise. The point is, kids are flexible and it’s important that they learn how to respect and adjust to the needs of different situations and people, and that includes their parents. One parent might not care if their daughter affectionately tackles them when they walk in the door, while another won’t like it. Your daughter should learn to adjust to this. I’m interested in HOW we’re setting boundaries. Are we setting them effectively, in ways that help your child gradually become psychologically stronger and more capable of living and succeeding in the world? Being ready to succeed in the world starts with being able to live in a house that’s joyful, where everyone’s needs are being considered, not just the child’s. Basic things your children should be taught to do would include learning to stop themselves and take a break sitting quietly for a minute when you need them to. They should also learn to finish difficult things before moving on to the fun things.
Your work spans a variety of ages from toddlers to adolescents, how does the approach to things like behaviour and anxiety issues change as children get older?
Although the specifics change for different ages, many of the core causes of behaviour and anxiety are often the same for toddlers and adolescents. Setting boundaries becomes more complex as children get older. Clear boundaries need to be set and children need to develop the abilities to handle frustrations and difficulties. The earlier this starts, the better, but if you start when your children are adolescents, there’s still lots you can do to prepare your children for successful lives in the world. Quite often we’re doing too much for our children. We’re telling them things that they can figure out or already know. We’re repeating directions they understood the first time. We’re explaining to them how to calm down, when they need to learn to calm themselves. We’re warning them 10 minutes, 5 minutes and 2 minutes before they’ll need to stop an activity they enjoy. All of this over-prompting communicates anxiety and our belief they can’t do these things for themselves. It also sets up a pattern where children don’t need to self-regulate because we’re doing all the regulating. It’s as if they’ve trained the adults around them to function as their Prefrontal Cortex. Then we wonder why their abilities to self-regulate, self-prompt and control themselves is developing so slowly. It’s developing slowly because they don’t need to engage these muscles, because they’ve contracted out the work to us!
Do you think medication has a place in treating childhood behavioural issues? Why/why not?
Yes, I think it has a place – last place. The problem is that it’s often used as the first step and not the last. Parents need effective tools to change behaviour, get respect and build the abilities of impulse control and attention. I was medicated when I was 7-years-old because my parents didn’t know what else to do. My goal is to give parents other options. Most people think that behaviour medications fix chemical problems in our thinking – they don’t. Behaviour medications create a set of counter symptoms to the symptoms that are causing the problems. They don’t cure anything, because even neurologists don’t understand the exact chemical causes of behaviour. Brain chemistry is plastic and constantly changing based on our experiences. If a child’s tantrums are a successful tool for avoiding deferred gratification and self-control, their brain chemistry will gradually reflect this. And if we can motivate them to stop their tantrums and exercise self-control, similarly, their brain chemistry will reflect this. I took myself off medications when I was 14 because I knew I needed to learn to deal with the brain I was born with. In my 30s, I painstakingly set about developing the attention, learning and deferred gratification skills I hadn’t yet developed. I’d like to show parents how do help their children develop these skills a bit earlier.
How much of a child’s behaviour is a result of their home life, the way they’ve been parented and life experiences vs. biological makeup?
Everyone has a genetic disposition toward certain behaviours, but a child’s experiences, their home life, and their school can have a strong influence on how these behaviours manifest and whether they’re debilitating or even require medication. One kid might be an 8 (on a scale of 1 to 10) on the ADHD scale (I was likely a perfect 10). Imagine this kid raised in a home where his parents couldn’t enforce any boundaries, and he didn’t have to practice deferred gratification, self-regulation or impulse control. When this kid goes to school he’s going to look like a “10,” and everyone is going to think he’s disordered and will want to medicate him. Now, take the same child and imagine him raised in a home where the parents have the tools to hold boundaries and motivate deferred gratification, self-regulation and impulse control. This child will go to school and look like a “6,” and everyone will think he’s precocious but just fine. Parents are making choices based on the things that are acceptable or normal in that culture. The rise of attention problems and emotional regulation problems are largely a part of a cultural shift. Some of this is parenting, some of this is technology. I think, given the right tools, parents can remedy this cultural shift.
The term “self regulating” gets used a lot when it comes to children and their emotions - what does this mean and should we be doing anything to teach self-regulation techniques?
Self-regulation is a blanket term for deferred gratification, impulse control, emotional-regulation, consideration and self-discipline. And I think the term gets used a lot because children appear to be doing so much less of it, and parents and teachers are doing more child-regulating. Ironically, I think most of us are going about teaching it in entirely the wrong way. We’re lecturing children to self-regulate, instead of creating the effects and/or consequences that motivate children to do it themselves. If you want children to self-regulate, you need to create two things: motivation and autonomy. Last year, the University of California in Santa Barbara did a study on what happened when 18 Elementary School teachers used my method. They did more than 1,800 observations of student behaviour and teacher responses before and after my training. I taught the teachers to give short one-minute breaks in response to a problem or off-task behaviour without telling the students why they were getting the breaks. If the student didn’t take the short break, they got a longer one and if they again refused, they went to the office for 15 minutes are were required to make up that learning time during their free time. The teachers took away any judgment about the behaviours, they identified the student’s autonomy and ability to choose their response, and they didn’t talk about behaviours that children could figure out for themselves. After four months using my approach, they measured a 49% decrease in all off-task and problem behaviours. The principal was free to get on with her work because her office wasn’t constantly filled with behaviour problems. The most interesting statistic was that the less teachers talked about behaviours, the better they got. The teachers had created classroom environments that motivated student SELF-regulation, SELF-discipline and autonomous problem solving, rather than the teacher regulating and disciplining behaviour. And teachers had more time to teach. Self-regulation is a Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) activity and the PFC gets stronger the more we use it, like a muscle. But we spend enormous time and effort trying to get children to understand why they should control themselves, as if self-regulation was all about thinking correctly – it’s not. Impulsive children know you want them to sit down, raise their hand, not call others “stupid”, or whatever. And every time you tell them something they already know, you’re likely making things worse. The core of my method relies on the untapped abilities of our children. Create and enforce the motivators, give respect and autonomy, take away judgment and condescending information and children will rise to your higher expectations.
In your experience, have modern day devices and screen-time been the catalyst for a lot of the behavioural issues identified in kids today?
Definitely! Fortnite sends me a lot of business. There’s very little self-regulation or deferred gratification required to play video games. For all the aggression related to them, it’s often a very passive experience. And parents should understand that apps and video games are designed to be addictive. That ‘bing!’ you hear when you get a ‘like’ stimulates a dopamine release that gives you a little rush and leaves you wanting more. Parents should ask themselves, “How much access does the Internet have to my children? Should I limit its access to them?” Children need to be able to find joy doing a variety of things: reading a book, playing outside, entertaining themselves without technology, physical activity, having a conversation, building or making things, playing with others, doing chores! We’re never going to turn back the clock on technology. But as we move forward, let’s make sure our children are able to turn it off and engage in the rest of life.
There are so many conflicting techniques being promoted when it comes to dealing with behavioural and emotional issues in kids - can you break down your top 5 (or so) tips that help ease tension and support happy and healthy development?
- Teach your children to take breaks when you ask them to.
- Ask more, lecture less.
- Use the this-before-that tool.
- Stop telling them things they already know or can figure out.
- Raising kids should be fun. If you’re not having fun, assert your own needs until it’s fun again.