Ask Dr. Mom

Years ago I consulted a doctor about my child’s confusing medical problem.  He asked me a lot of questions and my answers helped solve the problem.  I told him that no one ever asked me those questions before and he said that in medical school a pediatrics professor taught him , “If you don’t know what’s wrong with a child, ask the mother.”

I have been following that advice in my own work with mothers and have found that it is absolutely true.  When mothers ask me what is causing a child’s behavior that is worrying them, they usually know the answer themselves.  They know the answer because they have understood the child’s behavior.   Their confusion comes in part from not having enough confidence in their own answer.  But it may also come from not liking the answer.

Children communicate through behavior.  Actually, we all do.  As adults we have a greater mastery of language – and hopefully of our feelings – which enables us to communicate to others more clearly and directly.  Not always, though.  If a friend responds in a snappy way, we might wonder if something we said annoyed her.  If a spouse blows up seemingly for no reason, we might think something must have happened at work, or wonder if we did something to cause the behavior, or just feel angry at the outburst.  

So everyone communicates through behavior as well as words; we interpret the behavior, and our interpretations influence our response.  The same is true of our interactions with our children.  If a child becomes angry and defiant, or unusually quiet and withdrawn, we try to figure out what that behavior means.  The problem comes when our own reaction to the behavior interferes with our ability to understand it.

Angry and defiant behavior is very unpleasant, so the focus becomes the behavior itself – what to do about the behavior.  But how can you know what to do about the behavior if you haven’t stopped to understand what it – or your child – is telling you?  That’s when our thoughts start to turn to discipline, or punishment for the behavior. 

On the other hand, if I ask a mother, “What do you think he is so angry about?” mom will tell me he resents all the attention his sister has been getting, or he is angry at her for restricting his watching television.  In the same way, the mother of a withdrawn child might tell me her daughter feels excluded by some of the girls at school, or that she may be reacting to too many after school activities. 

In both instances our emotional response to the behavior gets in our way.  A child’s angry or defiant behavior often makes us angry in turn.  Withdrawn or unhappy-seeming behavior can cause us to worry that something is wrong.  To the degree that we’re angry or worried, it seems that the behavior must have some special meaning that is beyond our grasp.  We may start to label the behavior as “bad”, or “not normal”, and look for methods that will fix it.

A child’s behavior, (adults’ behavior, too, if you think about it,) has two parts. One part is the communication, and the other part is the means of delivery.  I think of that as the medium and the message: the medium is the behavior and the message is the content to be communicated.  We often don’t like the behavior – the method of communication – and so forget to think about the message itself.

But sometimes we also don’t like the message.  We don’t like it if a child is angry at us.  We don’t like to know that something is making our child unhappy.  We may not like hearing it, but hearing the message can tell us how to begin to respond to it.  The behavior is an expression of how strongly a child feels about something, but the message tells us what he feels so strongly about. We have to address both the message and the feelings.  If we want to correct the method of delivery (the behavior), we have to first show that we heard the message.

Letting a child know that we understand what he is angry about is a good first step.  We can then also think about why the child was so angry.  Usually this entails a conflict of wishes between mother and child, and perhaps there is a better way to resolve whatever the conflict was about.  That doesn’t mean things will go the way the child wanted.  It does mean showing your child a willingness to understand his feelings and listen to his point of view.

In the same way, our worry about the child who seems withdrawn or unhappy, can be turned instead into an acknowledgement of what is going on that she may have felt unable to share.  Here, too, the support offered for a child’s feelings can go a long way in beginning to address the problem.

The point is not to turn away from your own understanding of what your child’s behavior is about – whatever the behavior is.  The behavior persists when the child feels not heard.  The same is true for us as adults, too.  We all want to feel understood, even when we can’t have what we want.