Behaviour is Communication

Drew by Drew Tupper

From the time my child was born until a few years ago, I was lost. As a baby, his crying annoyed, no infuriated me. As he grew, so did his emotions, and his “tantrums” and “mis-behaviours” became bigger and louder. I had no idea how to “fix” them or him. I felt ineffective. More often than not, tears and screaming would appear out of nowhere, which made it all the more mysterious and frustrating. I didn’t deal with the frustration well. Some days I was able to keep it together, other days I would blow up. I’m sure the blow ups did not help anything. First off, the energy that resulted from my anger volcanos would make the environment tense and edgy, not calm and safe. Secondly, and I’m not proud to say, I would direct the anger and blame onto my child.

In retrospect, I realize the pointlessness in all of this, but at the time, the eruptions were beyond my control (*side note: I went to see a counsellor about my anger and took Allison Rees’ course. They both helped). I get it now that screaming, yelling, manhandling and threatening a small child, who may already be feeling uncomfortable, sad, or scared, does not help. I get it. But at the time, I wasn’t thinking. I was just reacting.

I needed to find a different way of being, a different way to approach my child’s distress. So, I set out on a mission. A mission to help my son, and help me. It ended up being a mission in understanding. What I found out was that we aren’t actually that complicated: us, adults, kids, humans. This is what I came to understand:

1. We only have a few basic but important needs

2. Our behaviour is how we try to meet these needs

3. Things will go more smoothly if our needs get met

Before I started all of this, I would have said that my son’s number one need was to make my life Hell. But, 1. That’s not a need. And 2. This type of thinking puts us in a stuck blaming type of mindset instead of a fluid problem solving type of mindset. I started to look at my childrens’ behaviour more as a road map for helping them out, as opposed to a threat to my sanity. This was a game changer. To trust that my child was not being difficult on purpose and not trying to make my life hell was a leap of faith, but it paid off. Before my mission in understanding began, I already knew about some needs: hunger, sleep, play, pees, poops…all the physical needs I had dialed. What escaped my realm of consciousness were the less than obvious, more emotional needs that were important to my son.

The need for love/attachment

The need to be heard/accepted

The need for choice/autonomy

Understanding the emotional needs of my kids has completely changed parenting for me.

I’ll try to elaborate. If my child was having a “tantrum” it meant that something was up. He needed some help. I would look to the physical needs (hungry, tired and so on…). Then, I would move on to the emotional needs. This is what I would do.

  • Try holding my child, snuggling, or reading a book close to him/her
  • Look and listen to what my child is feeling/saying and kindly reflect it back to him or her in a way that shows I understand how he or she feels
  • Try offering choice or some control over the situation

I have to remind myself to do this. It doesn’t come naturally to me. #2 is my absolute favourite. I had no idea that kindly reflecting back to your sobbing child what she is saying would have any effect at all. But here is the thing. It shows that you are listening and that you care. And being heard by your parents is so very important to a little one. Being heard is important to all of us.

The other day my daughter was really upset and crying that her toes had spaces between them. Seriously.

I watched my wife comfort her. I heard my wife say in a nice voice, “Yeah, I understand, you’re upset that your toes have spaces between them. What would you like to do”. WTF?… none of that makes any sense. But guess what. My wife was like Yoda doing Jedi mind tricks on a girl. My daughter calmed down and we got on with the day. This was so much better than a 45 minute melt down about toes and spaces between them…and how we don’t understand.

When I’m really stuck, I just do all three at the same time, or consecutively. I hold my child, refleck back to them how they are feeling, and then try to find a way to help them get some control over the situation.

I have seen it stop tears and tantrums dead in their tracks. Like I said, Yoda-esque. As my children get older, I’m encouraging them to this more on their own, to help themselves and advocate more for their needs. But, I figure this little exercise that I do with them will help them feel safe in expressing their feelings, will help them in naming their feeling, and will help them learn to create a plans to address how they are feeling. It’s actually when feelings go unexpressed that we really have something to worry about. I have hard enough time as a parent. I don’t need extra challenges.

Anyway, It’s all a work in progress, but we are in a much much better place than we used to be.

A couple disclaimers

* As always, this is a from my experience and might not apply to you or your child. But, it might.

** There are still times when I can’t figure out the behaviour.

As an aside

This “trying to get your needs met” never stops. It’s what we are programmed to do. You, me, we all do it. We may as well helps our kids get sorted out in childhood…or they might end up as confused as an adult. “Am I hungry, or lonely? Do I have to poop or am I frustrated my wife ignored me?” I’m kidding…but it has taken me a while to figure myself out.

Extra Credit

Something that I do now is to preempt the challenging behaviour. For example, If my son has a strong need for autonomy, I’ll try to figure out how to meet that need during more neutral, less emotionally charged times. The result has been fewer melt downs!!

Here is a great article about Behaviour as Communication


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