Behavior is Communication

I used to get angry at my son’s behavior. Looking back now, I realize that screaming, yelling, manhandling and threatening a small child, who may already be feeling frustrated, sad, or scared, does not help. I get it. But at the time, I wasn’t thinking. I was just reacting.

I went to see a counsellor and found a way to get a hold of my emotions and my anger. I set out determined to find a different way to deal with my child. With my emotions under control, I noticed something interesting. I found out that kids aren’t that complicated. This is what I noticed:

1. Children only have a few basic but important needs

2. Behavior is how our kids tell us about these needs

3. Things will go more smoothly if our children find ways to meet these needs

Before I started all of this, I would have said that my son’s number one need was to make my life Hell. But, 1. That’s not a need. And 2. This type of thinking puts us in a stuck blaming type of mindset instead of a fluid problem solving type of mindset.

I started to look at my childrens’ behavior more as a road map for helping them out, as opposed to a threat to my sanity. This was a game changer. To trust that my child was not being difficult on purpose and not trying to make my life hell was a leap of faith, but it paid off. I already knew about some needs: hunger, sleep, play, pees, poops…all the physical needs I understood. What escaped my realm of consciousness were the less than obvious, more emotional needs that were important to my son.

The need for love and attachment

The need to be heard and accepted

The need for choice and autonomy

Understanding the emotional needs of my kids has completely changed parenting for me.

I’ll elaborate. If my child was having a “tantrum” it usually meant that something was up. He needed some help. I would look to the physical needs (hungry, tired and so on…). Then, I would move on to the emotional needs. This is what I would do.

  1. (love and connection) Try holding my child, snuggling, or reading a book close to him/her
  2. (listening/validation) Look and listen to what my child is feeling/saying and kindly reflect it back to him or her in a way that shows I understand how he or she feels
  3. (choice and autonomy) Try offering choice or some control over the situation

I have to remind myself to do this. It doesn’t come naturally to me. #2 is my absolute favourite. I had no idea that validating, or kindly reflecting back to your child what she is saying would have any effect at all. But here is the thing. It shows that you are listening and that you care. And being heard by your parents is so very important to a little one. Being heard is important to all of us.

The other day my daughter was really upset and crying that her toes had spaces between them. Seriously. She did not like those spaces and was letting us know, loudly.

I watched my wife comfort her. I saw her rub my daughter’s back and say in a nice voice, “Yeah, I understand, you’re upset that your toes have spaces between them. You don’t like that”. Guess what! My daughter calmed down and we got on with the day. It was that simple. This was so much better than the hour long melt down about toes and spaces between them…and how we don’t understand.

When I’m really stuck, I just do all three at the same time, or consecutively. I hold my child, reflect back to him/her how they are feeling, and then try to find a way to help them get some control, and problem solve the situation.

I have seen it stop tears and tantrums dead in their tracks. As my children get older, I’m encouraging them to this more on their own, to help themselves and advocate more for their needs. But, I figure this little exercise that I do with them will help them feel safe in expressing their feelings, will help them in naming their feelings, and will help them learn to create a plans to address how they are feeling. It’s actually when feelings go unexpressed that we really have something to worry about. I have hard enough time as a parent. I don’t need extra challenges.

Extra Credit

Something that I do now is to preempt the challenging behavior. For example, If my son has a strong need for autonomy, I’ll try to figure out how to help him gain some control, have some say in things. I do this during neutral, less emotionally charged times. The result has been fewer melt downs!!

Here is a great article about Behavior as Communication


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