One of the most powerful shifts I made as a parent was when I started really focusing on behavior as communication, rather than simply reacting to the behavior in front of me as if it were a direct assault on my nerves. When one of my kids is really out of sorts, it acts as a beacon to me and I ask myself: What’s going on under this behavior? (This is not to say I’m perfect at this, sometimes I get really triggered by certain behaviors and have a very hard time doing any detective work as to what they might mean, but we’re all works in progress right?)
What we know about behaviors:
Alfred Adler believed we all have this basic desire and goal: to belong and to feel significant.
Kids want to do well and get along with us; when they are “misbehaving” it’s a call for help. Some need they have, isn’t being met and they are asking for help in an imperfect way. You might not agree with their need or their reason for being upset, but it’s still real and valid for them.
So – if we agree that behaviors are communication, what to do in the moment when your child is completely disruptive? You’re trying to make dinner, for instance, and your child is melting down, yelling at their siblings and stomping around the house.
What to do in the moment:
H.A.L.T. – your first step is to assess if anyone is:
- Lonely, or
If we’re hungry/thirsty, angry lonely or tired we can’t do anything well. Before trying to solve a problem we need to take care of the most basic needs. Sometimes we expect kids to handle these needs with even more grace than we do as adults, though they have fewer resources and experiences to pull from. The first thing to ask yourself is: Is my child, or am I, hungry, angry, lonely or tired?
What can I do to take care of that first? I like to use the acronym REST to remind myself of the basics of self-care. That way I can think: Halt, you need (or my kid needs) rest.
REST = Rehydrate, Eat something, Step outside, Talk to someone, and naturally, the rest part – get some sleep. (Sleep deprivation is extremely detrimental to emotional well-being for parents and kids.)
So if your stomping angry child didn’t eat their lunch and went to bed late last night, you have one answer to why they’re having a hard time handling themselves calmly. You can get them a quick snack, try to get bed earlier tonight and put off deeper conversations about what’s going on until they’re better rested and more calm.
After basic needs are met, take a look at your relationship.
If you and your child have been upset, you may need to reconnect – or you may need to let your child know they can help repair situations by making amends. For instance – if your stomping, hungry tried child caused you to lose your cool and you’ve both been shouting at each other – it’s time to step back and reset. You won’t get anywhere while you’re both triggered. If this means you both need to take a time-out to cool down, try to take that time apart.
To reconnect, I like to use the following guidelines from Pam Leo’s book Connection Parenting. (Amazon affiliate link)
The 3 R’s of reconnection are:
- Rewind—acknowledge hurtful behavior (“What I said was hurtful”)
- Repair—apologize and let the [other person] know he did not deserve our behavior
- Replay—respond with love and listening
We will always know when connection is reestablished. When [others] feel connected, they make eye contact with us, they talk to us, and they welcome our touch. ~Pam Leo
After the blow-up, your job isn’t done. To really embrace behavior as communication, your next step is to think of a long term way to meet the need the behavior is communicating.
You might not quite know what need is being expressed – and it might take a while to figure it out. Take it slowly and get curious so you can understand better. Here are some questions to ask to help you hone in on what your child might need:
- Could it be that your child ready for more responsibility? For instance – is your 10 year old ready to be making their own lunches so you can stop fighting about just how the sandwich is prepared?
- Or do they have too much responsibility in this area of their life? Maybe your kindergartner is overwhelmed by picking their own clothes in the morning, feeding the cat, plus getting breakfast, and grabbing their lunch and they need to master one of these things at a time and build up the the full routine.
- Do they need attention, some time to connect with you? Sometimes in times of transition like with a new sibling, a move or the beginning of a new school year, kids just need a bit more attention so they can feel reassured and regain confidence.
- Do they need more training? Kids are learning all the time and some skills take longer than others to learn. Would anther demonstration or a list of the steps for them to follow be helpful?
- Would a written or a picture routine help them know what’s expected of them?
- Was their behavior simply a part of this growth stage? A two year old asked to sit still for too long is really going to struggle – are your expectations realistic?
- What can you put in place for next time? If this behavior is a pattern, what’s one thing you can do to change the outcome next time?
You can get a printable one page reminder of how to handle frustrating behaviors here:
You can find another valuable post on decoding frustrating behavior on Aha Parenting where Dr. Markham discusses decoding your child’s “SOS Behavior” <<<I love that terminology. Great reminder that it’s not about you, it’s about them sending up a cry for help.
Are you able to see behavior as communication? Have you ever had an aha moment when you realized that what you through was a misbehavior was really a miscommunication?
About the Author
Alissa is a resilience coach, cartoonist, and advocate for ‘connection, not perfection’. She’s dedicated to helping others find a sense of safety and belonging inside themselves so they can heal, connect, and build authentic, joyful lives.