I frequently have people ask me about their children’s behavior. It often follows the pattern, “My child does _______. What should I do?” Now I’m not criticizing them for asking questions this way, I’ve found myself asking questions the same way.
But over time, I’ve learned that the behavior a child exhibits is often less important than what the child is trying to communicate with it.
Consider the strong emotions children are capable of feeling and the wide range of challenging and new social situations they find themselves navigating every day. Now think about their capacity for language. It’s growing, but depending on their age and stage, their language is likely not up to the level required for the delicate dance of social language. (Honestly, I’m sure we know a few adults who are still working on this. And depending on the situation, sometimes WE are the adults who struggle!)
So what happens when your whole body is overcome with emotion and aggravated energy, and you have no verbal outlet? You move to physical impulses and use action as your outlet.
Think about hitting for example. The behavior may be the same from child to child, but what they’re communicating may vary widely.
“You’re in my space! Back up!”
“Look at me! Look at me!”
“I want the toy. Drop the toy. Drop it!”
“This day is just.. going.. badly.”
If we respond only to hitting as the cause, we may or may not be effective. But if we look at what the child is actually trying to communicate we can get to the real cause and be truly responsive.
When we recognize improper behavior as improper communication, we can use language as the tool to correct it.
Intervening with language benefits children from two fronts. First, labeling the child’s emotions and describing the experience helps them emotionally. It gives them validation and let’s them know they’ve been heard:
“I can see you’re upset. When Sammy sat so close to you, you looked uncomfortable.”
But a verbal response can also help improve behavior, giving kids verbal references for future experiences:
“Hitting is not an OK way to treat other people. Just tell Sammy, ‘You’re too close. I don’t like that.’ ”
Think of it this way. Imagine you’re in a foreign country speaking a language you’re still trying to master. You’re fumbling around, trying to communicate to someone as they stare at you blankly. Then quizzically. This is obviously going badly. You start gesturing more and more wildly, trying to make your intended words more clear to your listener.
Then suddenly, your listener’s face softens. They show they understand. Immediately you relax a bit. Then they give you the word you were struggling for all along. “Yes! That’s it! That’s the word I needed!” Relief.
The next time you’re in a similar situation, how likely do you think it would be that you’d remember the word that your dear listener supplied you with? Will you go the same route, gesturing wildly again, or will you go directly to the word that gave you that connection, and that relief?
Similarly for our children, when we recognize that what we sometimes see as a failure to behave properly is actually a failure to communicate properly, then we can truly help by giving them the communication skills that will in turn change behavior.