The Iceberg of Behaviour

How to support your child when they are angry and upset.

“Stop behaving like this!”

“If you don’t stop crying right now….”

Sometimes as parents you may find yourself in a situation where your child displays angry, aggressive behaviour.

As parents it is completely natural to jump straight into problem solving mode.

If you ask a young child “Why are you behaving this way?” They may answer “I don’t know.” or “Because I am angry.” or they will simply accuse you of being “unfair.” And even though you are trying to figure out what has caused the problematic behaviour, with the best intentions in mind, you seem to be stuck already.

You have tried your utmost best to calm them down to help them overcome whatever has caused them to cry or be angry. Yet, they seem inconsolable and nothing works.

In the following I will describe the Iceberg of Behaviour which can help you inform the strategies that will enable you to support your child based on their needs.

The tip of the Iceberg is the observable behaviour such as kicking, screaming, being angry, crying.

This behaviour is driven by certain thoughts and emotions. For younger children these thoughts may be very difficult to articulate. Feelings are often difficult to articulate even for adults.

Underlying, on the third level, are certain values and beliefs your child may hold. These values and beliefs are developed over time and may be difficult to access, especially when in an emotional state. Values they may have learned from you as parents may be “tidiness, punctuality, academic achievement”. A belief might be “Good grades mean that I am a good son/daughter.”, “If I am late I am disrespectful, a bad person.”

At the bottom of the Iceberg are Existential Needs. Existential needs are for example and not limited to: Security/Predictability, Love/Belonging, Growth/Stimulation , Meaning/Purpose, Autonomy. Different Existential Needs are stronger at different developmental stages and also depend on their temperament and character. These needs inform all of the above layers of the iceberg.

Further influences may play a role but in order to keep this as simple as possible we will stick with this.

So how to use this framework in order to support your child?

Consider the following questions:

  • What values or belief may my child hold that are unhelpful?
  • Which need may have been unmet? How can I try to meet this need more consistently in the future?
  • Security/Predictability: Has there been a quick shift in activities? Was the time to transition too short for my child? Do I communicate clear rules and expectations?
  • Love/Belonging: When was the last time I expressed my love to my child? How? Was my child able to take this in? Do I withdraw my love and affection at times?
  • Growth/Stimulation: When was the last time my child may have felt a sense of achievement? Does my child experience different activities? What can I do to help my child to meet this need themselves? Has this need been oversaturated today? Is my child overwhelmed by too much stimulation?
  • Meaning/Purpose: An existential need that becomes more relevant/complex later in life. What would I like my child to “understand” as their meaning and purpose? How can I support my child with regards to this?
  • Autonomy: How often do I let my child decide for themselves? How often do I show patience so that they can try to achieve something themselves (getting dressed, tying shoes)?

I do hope that you find this helpful.

If you would like further support for yourself and your child please do not hesitate to contact me!

Lukas Dressler
Psychotherapy.plus
Psychologist (MSc.)
Integrative Psychotherapist

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Lukas Dressler - Psychotherapy Plus

Counselling Psychologist (MSc.), HCPC Registered, Integrative Psychotherapist for Children and Young People.