It’s easy to figure out what is going through a child’s mind when she has a meltdown in the supermarket after you refuse to buy a certain colorful, candy-coated, sugar-filled product or when he is not allowed to play with an enticingly cool toy, but what about other times when your child’s behavior seems baffling? Children show feelings through their behavior just as easily as they do through their words, so it’s up to us to figure out what they are really trying to communicate with their behaviors. Often, there are times when we think we know what’s going on with our child or we respond to their acting out without truly recognizing what the child is experiencing. If we can play detective and figure out the underlying reason why our child is acting out, not only are we more likely to find our child more compliant, but we are demonstrating a deep understanding that the child will find comforting and reassuring.
One of the most common reasons children act out is a need for attention. Although we want to be careful what messages we reinforce, typically the best practice is to give your child attention if your child is asking for it. However, we have the greatest impact on our children by offering them attention that is positive. When we praise, encourage, and play with our kids, they behave and feel more positive. When your child realizes that her positive behavior is getting more attention than her negative behavior, you are likely to see a shift in her conduct.
Another universal reason children act out is a need to feel competent. Have you ever had your patience tested while waiting for your child to tie his own shoe laces? Of course this happens when you are already running late and it would be much more time-efficient if you tied the laces yourself, but your young child is trying to feel capable and this small achievement can feel like he conquered Mt. Everest. Allow your child to feel accomplished. This will help with his self-esteem and confidence, and as a result, his behavior.
One caution, however, parents may easily misinterpret their child’s behavior. Parents may assume their child is acting out because she is angry or because he didn’t get what he wanted. Often parents forget that children misbehave when they are anxious, fearful, or feeling sad. Here is where the detective skills are crucially important. By understanding what a child is feeling, we can provide them with the appropriate antidote. For example, when your child comes home from school and begins acting out, spend a few minutes talking with him. You may find out that your child was teased at school and is feeling very hurt. When children feel strong negative emotions, they may not know how to handle these feelings. Ask your child about his day. Not only are you attending to him (positive attention!) but helping him learn how to manage a strong feeling through something other than his physical behavior.
Next time your child has a tantrum, before you react to her behavior, try to detect what she is feeling. Does she need attention? Perhaps she is trying to feel competent. Or maybe she doesn’t know how to describe what she is feeling and merely acts out the frustration of not knowing how to manage her emotions. The more we hone our detective skills, the better our children will behave and communicate.