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What is My Child’s Behavior Telling Me? by Anne Oliphant, Psy.D. , L.C.P.

We can think of our children’s behavior as a form of communication. When our child is happy and cooperative, it is not difficult to interpret the hugs, smiles, and willingness to do what we as parents request. However, our child’s seeming mis-behavior has meaning, too, and it is sometimes more challenging to understand the underlying causes of such behaviors. Behaviors that we parents might attribute to misbehavior may have other meanings. The psychologist, V.M. Durand, Ph.D., has provided several categories of children’s behavior that can help us understand what our child’s behavior might be telling us (Durand, V.M., Sleep Better, pages 176-178). Using his categories, as well as adding some of my own, I will offer my interpretation of each.

Regulatory Issues

All of us—infants, children and adults—need to develop and refine self-regulation skills; however, from infancy onward, some children find self-regulation to be overwhelmingly challenging. Although it is the infant’s and growing child’s (and teenager’s) job to learn to regulate his/her behavior, it is our job as parents to regulate our own behavior and then help our child learn self-regulation skills. The first way to help them learn is to set the example with our own self-regulation. Second, we can help by “recognizing the teachable moment” and helping them develop better strategies for dealing with stress and frustration.  This is not as easy as it might sound. The middle of a child’s tantrum, when the child is completely dys-regulated, or when a teenager is slamming doors, for example, is not the time to teach better coping skills. Wait for a calmer time, then teach—not condemn.

Sensory Integration Issues

Some children find certain sensory experiences, such as the feeling of certain fabrics next to their skin to be aversive and stressful. They might make a fuss about wearing certain articles of clothing, shirt labels might irritate them, and experiences, such as playing in sand, might be unpleasant for them.  Conversely, they might crave sensory input and show this by constantly seeking sensory experiences such as seeming to be constantly in motion or needing to have little toys in their hands with which to fidget. Unfortunately, sometimes parents and other adults attribute these characteristics to misbehavior instead of addressing what is frustrating to the child or what is helping the child self-regulate.

Attention Seeking Behaviors

We’ve all heard the story about “soggy potato chips.” If we have the “munchies” and are craving fresh, crispy chips, but all we can find is the almost-empty bag of chips at the back of the pantry, we will settle for those instead of waiting for a bag of fresh chips or forgoing chips altogether. In an analogous way, children will do the same in terms of attention seeking. Of course, they would much prefer our attention for what they are doing correctly and having our full attention focused on what they are telling us or showing us. But if they cannot get the positive attention they crave from us parents, they will settle for “soggy chips,” and engage in misbehavior, assuming (although they are most likely not aware of such an assumption) that even negative attention from parents is better than none at all.

Escape from Attention

Some children are easily stressed by the commotion of everyday family or school life. They become “flooded” and overwhelmed, and we can see their behavior start to escalate and start to get out of control.  These children are not trying to be “naughty;” they simply cannot tolerate the level of activity in their environment at that moment, which is getting them revved up. At home, we can provide them with a calming place away from bright light, to go for rest and to self-regulate, with pillows, some books, maybe some soothing music and a soft, cuddly stuffed animal. This is not a punishment or “time out” for misbehavior. Rather, it is a place where we can direct the child before he or she becomes flooded and “loses it” by having a tantrum or an outburst.

Escape from Demands

Sometimes when children seem uncooperative about doing what we have asked, it is because they are afraid they cannot do the task, such as homework. They don’t know how to start or how to complete the assignment, so they just don’t do it or they make a fuss about doing it. Dr. Durand gives the example of a child not wanting to brush his teeth, and reminds us that the parent must ensure that the child completes these tasks. At times like this, a positive behavior chart, which you can find for free on the internet, can be helpful.

“I want that!”

I have read that there are researchers who spend hours observing shoppers in order to find the best placement for products in the store. It is no surprise, then, that when we get to the checkout counter, the candies and gum and magazines are right there, at eye-level for us and our child who is sitting in the grocery cart.  Or our teenager wants the latest electronic gadget that has come on the market, whether or not it is age-appropriate or affordable.  Or our children want video games or to see movies that are not appropriate. It is our job as parents to decide what is appropriate to give our children and what is not, and when things should be given. Of course, when we say no, a child will very often push back against that limit. But that cannot stop us from doing what we know is right and firmly, but lovingly, setting limits.


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