In talking about kids and parenting in therapy, there are a couple topics I find that my counseling clients and I come back to often. At the top of this list is what to make of and how to respond to children’s behavior. Parenting is complex. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be countless books written on the topic. A lot of these books give pointers on specific situations and specific interventions that a parent is instructed to mimic in order to be a more effective parent. As with any important topic that is written about extensively, some of it is useful and some of it isn’t.
Often I find that it is useful to look at specifics. For example, it is helpful to have some ideas for what to do when your child refuses to brush their teeth or use the big kid potty. I often also find it useful to zoom out and think more broadly (think forest instead of trees) about important topics. Along these lines, I’m talking more about major beliefs and perspectives on children, child development, and the job of a parent. For example, what do you believe your main “job”/goal is as a parent? What is appropriate to expect cognitively and emotionally out of a child of this age? And specific to this article, what do I believe about a child’s behavior?
As we all know, a child’s communication is limited by the development of their vocabulary. The reality is, though, that kids are excellent communicators. When I think of this topic, I always think back to my niece whose language was delayed as a preschooler. What stuck out to me about her specifically was that she didn’t have many words but she was one of the best little communicators I had ever seen. What she lacked in words she made up for in all kinds of non-verbals. If you paid enough attention to her or were around her enough, you would find that she could communicate just fine. You just had to listen to her the right way, in her language. One of the languages of children that we can easily miss, as many people did with my niece, is their behavior. A child’s behavior is never random. Your kid is never just “being difficult” for the sake of being difficult. They are hard-wired to communicate and their behavior is doing just that, in a much more effective way than their words could anyway.
In The Connected Child, the authors talks about how the first things you should ask yourself or a child when they start to act out is “Are they tired? Are they thirsty? Or are they hungry?” They encourage caretakers to start with the basics, first, because often this is the root of acting out behaviors especially and, as adults, we’re in charge of helping children get what they need. If your child is too tired to function, then you- the adult in charge- should designate some rest time for them. When a child is acting tired, they are effectively communicating that they need more sleep or rest. Obviously, how you handle this depends on the age of the child but, at the end of the day, you’re the boss in charge of naptime and limit-setting. More broadly you’re in charge of helping a child learn what they need and how to meet those needs for themselves as they grow and become more independent.
The authors of The Connected Child also speak specifically to seeing beyond misbehavior of a child who is struggling emotionally:
“Play detective and watch closely for situations that trigger physical or behavior reactions in your child. This will help you respond more effectively to your child’s needs…Children who act out may appear strong but are surprisingly fragile inside. When their externalized misbehaviors are met with an assault of adult force, they come to believe that no one understands them or cares about their needs…We always need to look beyond a difficult behavior and ask ourselves:
-What is the child really saying?
-What does the child really need?
Although we address misbehavior directly and quickly, we also must address it sensitively and responsively as a clue to the deepest needs of the child” (p. 46)
The authors here allude to another excellent point in the discussion of children’s behavior: the fact that kids often don’t know what they need and easily confuse needs and wants. Neuroscientists now tell us that our ability to exercise sound decision-making is limited until our brain is done developing in our mid to late 20s. Again, this is the job of the parent to help guide them. If we simply went with what a child wants or thinks he/she needs, a kid will often make poor, or even harmful, choices. When this fact comes to mind, I always think about how my nephew as a toddler was always so fascinated by my morning coffee. Eventually, he understood enough and would only point at it and say “Hot. No, no.” But at first, you would have thought that I was killing his hopes and dreams by saying no to his requests to drink, touch, or hold this enticing mystery beverage. In those moments, he needed me to be the adult in charge because he didn’t and couldn’t know what was best for him.
The reality that many of us don’t think about is that kid-as-boss also creates significant anxiety for a child. Try thinking about it from a survival standpoint: Kid’s simply can’t survive on their own and any feeling that they are being asked to would naturally create significant distress. Keep in mind, though, this is distress that there’s no way a child could fully understand and articulate due to its depth and complexity. It is true that often kids act as if they want to be in charge (again, like a toddler absolutely insisting on drinking that coffee). But what happens when a child has been given too much responsibility or power in the family? Anxious or acting out behaviors. Attachment expert Nancy Thomas writes, “A child feels safe when the loving parent is strong enough to be in control. When the parent sets limits and maintains established limits, the child can learn to trust. A child will not learn to trust someone who is weaker” (p. 78). I would add that a child is unable to feel safe in an environment where he/she feels as if no adult is in charge or when an immature adult doesn’t seem confident in their ability to be in charge. It’s as if something inside a child knows something isn’t right but they don’t have the capacity or language to explain what is missing. This happens in adult systems as well. Have you ever worked somewhere or been a part of a project where it felt like no one was in charge? Did it feel organized/directed/”right”? In my experience, ships without captains simply don’t feel as stable and sometimes even “unsafe” in a sense. If we experience this to some extent as adults, imagine how much more impactful this feels to our children.
At the end of the day, this topic may feel complicated at first but is really rather simple. To put it succinctly, a child’s behavior is communication. Specifically, it is communication about what a child needs. Whether it be a nap, snack, some juice, or better limit-setting, a child is constantly telling us what they need if only we’re willing to calmly and respectfully listen.
Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Thomas, N. L. (2005). When love is not enough: A guide to parenting children with RAD- Reactive Attachment Disorder. Glenwood Springs, CO: Families By Design.