The Iceberg Analogy

small girl standing in a puddle in black and white

The Iceberg Analogy

Before I had children I dreamt about what kind of parent I would be and how my children would behave. I was going to implement the best tools/strategies, I was never going to lose my cool, and my children would always listen to me. How wrong I was on how easy it would be. I’m sure most parents have had this same feeling!

What helped me as a parent was starting my Masters in Marriage, Child and Family Counselling. I learned about the fundamentals of child development and psychology and it changed the way I thought about children. You don’t need to have a Masters, though, to understand brain development and age appropriate behavior. If parents have this basic understanding of child development and age appropriate behaviour it can help alleviate stress, and give clarity around where misbehaviour may be coming from.

The positive discipline approach is the framework that I implement with parents. It emphasises that all children need to have a sense of belonging, and that all behaviour is purposeful. Research has suggested that children are hardwired from birth to connect with others, and that children who feel a sense of connection to their family, school or community are less likely to misbehave.

Behaviour is like an Iceberg

The iceberg is a wonderful analogy to understand children’s behaviour and the reasons behind the behaviour. The child’s behaviour is the tip of the iceberg, and what we see on the surface. Behaviour is triggered from feelings, which stem from the deeply rooted needs of the child. Like an iceberg, the bulk of behaviour’s “mass” is hidden below the surface. The hidden base of the iceberg represents the belief behind the behaviour and the child’s needs. Basic needs consist of safety, security, trust, empathy, understanding, autonomy, adequate sleep and nutrition, competency, respect, love and a sense of belonging and significance.

When a child’s basic needs are met, he or she feels connected, safe, secure, confident, and satisfied. However, when the child perceives (realistically or not) that their need is not being met, then misbehaviour will occur. Misbehaviour is triggering for parents, and gets under our skin. Most parents often deal with misbehaviour with bribes, threats and punishments (blame, shame and pain). This confirms a child’s belief that they do not have significance or belonging, creating a cycle of discouragement.

It is important to address the underlying beliefs beneath the surface of the iceberg in order for sustained behaviour change to occur. To help understand the misinterpretation of the child’s belief, it is imperative to have knowledge of the human brain. The brain development happens in stages, from  bottom to the top. The amygdala and the limbic system develops first, which are the instinctual and emotional parts of the brain. Then the neocortex (thinking, and logical part of the brain) develops much later in adolescence and early childhood.

Children are good perceivers, but poor interpreters, of the world around them. They are not able to see the bigger picture and engage in higher level thinking. Figuring out cause-and effect patterns are too much for them to comprehend. Many parents have the perception that their child is like a “mini adult”. This often requires the child to engage in behaviour that is not yet age appropriate, and when they don’t it is often seen as misbehaviour. It is important to consider the underlying feelings and needs of children rather than reacting to the behaviour on the iceberg’s surface.

Trust the process

Instead of seeing misbehaviour as a negative, try and see it as more of a process. Misbehaviour gives a clue as to how you as a parent can check in with your child and connect more deeply. Parents need to send the message to their child “how can I strengthen my relationship so that they feel loved, and have a sense of belonging”. To help understand a child’s underlying needs parents must be curious and ask open ended questions such as “What is happening for you right now?”, and “What do you need?”. When we focus on what’s underneath the iceberg the top (i.e. the behaviour) will take care of yourself.

This process can also be applied to adults. Adults also have a need for belonging and significance, and when these needs are not met it contributes to “misbehaviour”. Understanding our underlying needs as adults enables us to have compassion for ourselves and others.