From our children’s infancy on, as parents we learn about them from their behavior. When babies cry, or are fussy, we try to figure out if this means they are hungry, tired, need to have a diaper change, or just want to be held. When nothing seems to comfort them, new parents may begin to worry that something is wrong. Sometimes, the idea that the baby is just crying for attention is experienced critically, as becoming “spoiled.”
As children grow and develop new skills, we depend even more on reading their behavior as a way to understand who they are in order to be effective as parents. When they begin to speak, language adds another way in which they can express themselves. Despite that, young children in particular express their feelings through behavior, rather than words. One of our jobs as parents is to teach them to use words to say how they feel, but to do that we have to first recognize the feelings being expressed in our child’s behavior.
At times, what children’s behavior is saying is not that clear and can be confusing to parents, especially when we don’t get the result we expect from our own responses. A good example is when children don’t do what parents ask them to do. Or as parents often put it, “they don’t listen.” Questions may arise about their hearing, but more often the thought is that a child is being defiant, or simply not paying attention. Parents often say, “I know she understands what I want, why doesn’t she do it?”
On the other hand, children sometimes feel the same way about us. We know what they want, why don’t we do it? The problem is, we don’t always know what they want and when we do, we may not want them to have it. So part of the reason we don’t always understand what children’s behavior is saying is that we may not like the message being delivered by the behavior.
Not liking the message can also lead to misreading or misinterpreting the message. For example, we may not like or want to deal with the conflict between our wishes and our children’s wishes. When children “don’t listen” we may attribute that to a fault in the child, labeling him bad or defiant. Many adults believe that children should just do as they are told without regard for what they want.
Sometimes, misreading behavior is the result of misleading behavior, which can lead parents to worry that something is wrong with the child. A mother consulted me about her two-and-a half year old son after I had observed him in his pre-school group. Her concern was that he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do in class. She wanted him to learn how to behave in school, seeing him as simply not complying with the teacher as other children did.
Observing the child, he was well-related and connected to everything that was going on. His problem was that he was unable to control his body, which was in constant motion. He participated in all the activities while moving around, helping to put things away when requested, but was unable to sit quietly on the floor at times as other children did.
It was hard for his mother to understand that her son was not defying the teacher or simply not doing what he was told. Rather, his body was getting away from him and was not under his control, so he was unable to comply in the way that was expected. This did not happen in a one-to-one situation so the nature of the problem had been missed in an earlier individual evaluation.
In this situation understanding the meaning of the behavior meant seeking the kind of intervention that would help this child begin to master his high activity level. However, most situations that leave parents concerned or upset are due to misreading, rather than to misleading behavior.
The most helpful way to find the meaning of a child’s behavior in a given situation is to ask yourself, “If he could express his feelings in words, what would he be telling me?” He might be telling you he doesn’t like or doesn’t want to do what you expect of him. But at least, you now have something to begin to work with, rather than worry about.