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Allison LaTona, M.F.T.
Psychotherapist | Parenting Coach + Educator

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Behavior is Communication

Photo by yaruta/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by yaruta/iStock / Getty Images

Children are often limited in their ability to express their feelings verbally, as this requires insight and self-awareness.  These skills develop over time, but until then, when children are experiencing feelings, they will often be expressed through their behavior.  

When your child is feeling joyful this may be expressed with physical exuberance, laughing, dancing, twirling, and dashing around the yard.  When they are excited, they may express themselves skipping, hopping on one foot, clapping, or squealing with glee.  These are obvious positive expressions of emotion reflected in behavior, and are clearly not problematic.  

It is when children engage in undesired behavior, such as aggression, defiance, protest, and dawdling that parents often miss the feelings being expressed.  The misbehavior is then responded to with a focus solely on ending the hitting, pushing, testing, noncompliance, etc. without a sense of what’s driving it and being communicated.  This may stop the behavior temporarily, but just until the underlying feeling is expressed through more undesired behavior.  A child’s feeling will continue to be acted out, until it is acknowledged, validated and/or addressed more directly, beyond the behavior.  This is not to say we should not tend to the inappropriate behavior, and only address the feeling.  We must however, deal with both the message and the behavior, in order to restore connection and effectively extinguish the misbehavior.

As parents we must understand behavior is communication, and therefore has meaning.  Underlying all misbehavior there is a message from your child.  When you recognize and address the meaning of their behavior, your child will feel understood and connected, and will follow by acting appropriately.  They will feel ‘themselves’ again, as the unmet need being expressed has been tended to.  Responding optimally to your child’s behavior requires insight, understanding, and presence as a parent.  With so many daily tasks, interactions, and transitions, it is not always easy to be aware of what your child is expressing in their behavior.  And yet being mindful of this is worth striving for, since when children feel heard, they are more likely to listen and make ‘good’ choices, thereby deepening your connection with positivity in the relationship, and increasing your general effectiveness as a parent.  

Children are always doing the best they can.  When they are engaging in less than desirable behavior, the responsibility is on the parent to decipher what is going on with their child.  This requires considering a lot of variables such as the developmental needs of a child, the context of schedule in terms of sleep, meals, screen-time and activities, the context of family life, such as structure (or lack thereof), parenting style, playtime with parents, parent work schedule/travel, as well as evaluating the context in which the behavior is occurring, at home, at school, both environments, the sibling relationship, or just the parent-child relationship.  

When evaluating your child’s behavior, remember:

When children feel right, they act right

Children have basic needs of feeling safe, connected, and competent, with an appropriate sense of power.  They need relationship to thrive, as well as a growing sense of autonomy.  When these needs are fulfilled, they feel balanced and regulated, which is reflected in appropriate behavior.  Next time your child isn’t acting right, be curious about how they are feeling and how you can meet that expression beyond just limiting their behavior.

If you want to change your child, change yourself

When children are acting out with inappropriate behaviors and/or making poor choices, the responsibility is on the parent to ‘change’.  What?!  Yes, your child’s behavior is often either a reflection of being a two-year old, a four-year old, an eight-year old, etc., and/or an expression of an unmet need. They need YOU, the adult, to change, because you CAN! What does this mean exactly?! 

Changing” as a parent can mean so many things…

Here is just a sampling of ideas:

-reading up on the age of your child to understand the developmental tasks/needs of their age for greater insight and to inform appropriate expectations

-changing your perspective

-increasing your one-on-one time with your child so they feel ‘filled up’ by YOU

-implementing a new parenting tool  

-being better organized so there is more ‘space’ to connect and go at your child’s pace 

-evaluating the need to reduce the daily/weekly schedule of structured activities for your child, as children need a lot of unstructured downtime (which their behavior will reflect)

-evaluating the need to modify your work and/or travel schedule

-accepting who your child is, rather than who you wish them to be

-increasing self-care, so you have the bandwidth to meet the constant demands of your child 

-setting up a parent consultation to make a new plan

Children don’t know what they need 

The onus is on the parents to identify, understand, and meet a child’s needs. Children don’t have the self-awareness or emotional sophistication to express their needs, nor do they know what is best for them.  This is our job as the adult.

Example: A child is continually is engaging in negative attention-getting behavior, while interacting with their twin sibling, and clearly showing signs of needing more connection to their parent.  But when the parent attempts to create special alone-time with them, they whine for their sibling to come too, and protest the time with you.  Don’t take this as a pass! … Keep in mind your child does not know what they need.  Instead, acknowledge that they are thinking about their sibling, follow through with the alone time that you know they need to improve your connection and their behavior, and reassure them they will see their sibling soon.  

There is a message in the behavior

To identify what it is your child is communicating, know that there are a few basic messages underlying behavior.

Children most often are expressing:

- the need to feel competent, to make impact, to feel powerful

-the need to feel connected or to gain attention

-the need to feel more adequate

-the need to seek revenge 

Parents must first stop the misbehavior, then show the child how they are impacting another (“your friend is crying”), respectfully remind them of the limit/rule (“hitting is not a choice”), give a reason for the limit (“hitting hurts“) and lastly, give a redirection (“you can use your words”).  Imagine what it is they are attempting to communicate and show them how they can express this more appropriately.  

If the misbehavior persists, look more deeply at the context of the situation (eg. parent more busy than usual, new sibling, just moved, just started school) including your child’s daily life (eg. choices, structured activities), as well as your relationship (eg. one-on-one time, parenting style) to decipher what it is they are expressing through their behavior.  Evaluate what message seems to fit most for your child and proactively meet their need so they can feel and act better.

To me, when you understand these truths of behavior and communication, you will have unlocked one of the most crucial keys to parenting on this journey, which will allow you to more deeply foster connection with your child, thereby guiding them to make optimal choices in their world.

Allison LaTona