Want to Change the Way you React to Your Children? Try ‘The Behaviour Window’.

The Behaviour Window is a powerfully simple model that helps us understand ourselves, and our reactions to other people. I’ve found the concept to be transformational in helping my everyday response to my family, and in my work.

Developed by Thomas Gordon, psychologist, the Behaviour Window forms the foundation of his Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) approach to respectful communication and parenting. Here, in a nutshell, is my understanding of the Behaviour Window.

Recognise the Difference between Our Child's Behaviour and Our Assumptions

When each of us relates to someone else, we respond to the other person’s behaviour – what they do, what they say, how they say it. Often, however, we actually react to what we think is their intention behind their behaviour – our assumptionsour labels, about why they are doing what they’re doing or saying. We can’t know the thoughts, feelings or needs that underlie the other person’s behaviour.

The Behaviour Window asks us to step back and separate ourselves from our assumptions, to look simply at the other person’s behaviour. That is, what we see the other person do (could take a photo of); hear them say (could record); feel; smell; or taste.

The Behaviour Window

Now, imagine a window with a sash that goes up and down. Each of us will have our own unique window through which we observe someone else’s behaviour. We will view what the other person does in one of two ways: as being either OK (acceptable), or not OK (unacceptable), to us.  The bottom half of the window is the part where we see behaviour as being unacceptable to us, while we notice acceptable behaviour through the top half.

The window sash (‘line of acceptance’) is not static. It is well oiled, and slides up and down very quickly, and for different reasons. If we’re tired, sick, worried about money, feeling insecure, pressured, or no energy, then we’re likely to have a high ‘line of acceptance’. Similarly, if we feel judged by someone else (such as our partner, parent, or parent-in-law), or worried that our child’s behaviour will be bad for them (such as not doing their homework), then we’ll also have a high line of acceptance.

Basically, if our line is high, if the window sash is up, then we have a problem with the other person’s behaviour, and feel stressed. That means we find it harder to cope with, or to tolerate, that person’s behaviour. We will want them to change.

On the other hand, if we feel calm, secure, at peace with the world, or just neutral, then our line will be low, and we’ll more likely to be relaxed, and won’t have a problem, with whatever other people are doing. We’ll be more accepting.

The way we experience another person’s behaviour is unique to each of us. There are several factors that will influence our ‘line of acceptance’, including our own stress levels at that point, our values, our assumptions, who the other person is, our history with that person, or where we are.

Another person – our partner, for example – could look at the same behaviour, and experience the behaviour completely differently to us.

Let’s say four year-old-Leslie has left toys strewn over the floor. One parent might come in and want all the toys picked up immediately. The other parent sees the same thing, but says “Wow - looks like you’ve been having fun, Leslie”. There is no right or wrong – it’s just that each parent experienced the same behaviour differently. The first parent might have a headache and is stressed because they feel their efforts to keep a tidy house is wasted. The second parent has just come in from gardening feeling relaxed, and can’t see a problem.

I love this model because it calls on us to be aware of what is happening within us. We have to be in touch with how we’re feeling, because our emotions are our clue as to where our line of acceptance lies. With negative emotions, we are likely to experience our child’s behaviour as unacceptable, while with positive emotions, we’ll be more accepting.

The Behaviour Window helps us notice what’s happening within us, to become self-aware. Once we are aware of how we feel, of whether our window sash, our line of acceptance, is high or low, we might then choose how to respond.  Ideally, if we aim to lower our line, to increase the amount of time we feel calm and accepting, then our relationship with others will improve.

We cannot change what we do not notice.

Becoming aware of what is happening within us, of our own feelings, means we then become responsible for how we respond, and we stop blaming others for how we feel. We also stop blaming ourselves - the Behaviour Window tells us that it will be impossible to always be accepting of what others do; that we cannot be 'perfect' parents. Instead, we have our good days, and we have our bad days. And that's OK.

The Behaviour Window helps us:

  • to stop taking people’s behaviour personally
  • to take responsibility for the way we react
  • to stop blaming others for the way we feel
  • to recognise that the only person we can change is ourselves
  • to stop trying to change others
  • to stop being a victim
  • to know that it’s OK to have good days, and OK to have bad days
  • to accept that we are human, and takes the stress away of having to be the perfect parent
  • to stop labelling children as ‘they are doing this deliberately to hurt me; they are wanting to push my buttons’. Instead, we recognising that ‘I feel hurt because  . . .’
  • to respond to our children’s behaviour with empathy rather than blame

Other People (Children, Partners) Have Their Own Behaviour Windows.

The Behaviour Window brings us a new awareness about other people. We now understand that the other people in our lives have their own ‘Behaviour Window’, and that their line is going up and down because of what is happening in their world. Other people - our children, our partner - also have their good days, and their bad days. And that too, is OK.

If our normally sweet-natured child comes home from school grumpy, then rather than reacting negatively to their surface behaviour (grunting, turning their back, slamming the door), we can empathise. We can acknowledge to ourselves that our child’s line must be high – that they have a problem.  

Problem Ownership (building on the Behaviour Window) guides us as to what to do next.

In this case, our role will be to Actively Listen.

“You look annoyed with life right now”, we might say, acknowledging their feelings.

“Yes, Jenny was mean to me today”. 

Now that we are aware of the reason for their behaviour, our line of acceptance will become lower. We can then decide which communication skill will be most helpful for our child, and us.

A common language

If everyone in the household is aware of this model, and the ideas behind it, then it can be helpful as a basis for a common language. If I've had a bad day, I might say "my line is high, so I'll find it more difficult to be around loud noise at the moment". Or my children could say "my line is high because . . . and I don't want to be reminded to do things - I'll get to them."  We've found that being open about the position of our 'line of acceptance' helps promote consideration.

The Behaviour Window gives us an understanding of ourselves, and of others. Once we understand, we can respond with empathy – both to ourselves, and to the other person. Our relationship becomes one of acceptance rather than blame; one of peace, rather than conflict.

First published by Larissa Dann on 13 April 2020

©Larissa Dann 2020

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