What Your Child Can’t Tell You
Copyright © 2011 Tina Feigal, Parent Coach and Parenting Speaker
You have probably heard the phrase, “All behavior is communication.” The more I think about this, the more I see that it is a crucial thought for raising children. I want everyone to emblazon this idea where they will see it every day. Children misbehave because they lack the communication skills and insight to tell us what’s really happening. It’s our job to look beyond the behavior to the root feelings.
When a child whines, it is not because she likes the sound of whining. It’s because she lacks the maturity and experience to say, “Mom, Dad, I am frustrated right now because you are asking me to hurry for school, but I am a kid and I’m just slower.” Instead, she’ll exhibit all kinds of unwanted behaviors: whining, delaying, arguing, and even getting physically aggressive.
When a grade-schooler refuses to do his homework, it’s not likely that he is simply lazy. His behavior is communicating that he is discouraged in some way. Our first impulse as parents is to make him seethat he needs to get the work done so he can be successful. We remind, cajole, threaten, and eventually explode. Our first impulse would be much more helpful if instead, it was to determine what to do about the discouragement.
When a teenager doesn’t listen to our advice, it’s not because he is just being a jerk. His behavior is communicating that he is in a new phase of development. He needs to make his own decisions, and we are inadvertently calling him incompetent whenever we advise him. He takes it as an insult every time we make a suggestion. He can’t say, “Mom, Dad, I appreciate that you care about me, and that you are more wise than I am. But I need to make these decisions myself because I am becoming a young adult, and that’s what young adults do. Please bear with me as I struggle and even fail sometimes.” So he leaves the house in a huff, giving the door an extra hard slam for emphasis. We would be much better off if our first impulse was to support him in his decision-making, rather than tell him what to do.
It’s essentially a short-cut. If you want cooperative behavior from your kids, take the short-cut by training your mind to see what’s beneath the communication. Practice seeing your child’s innocence first, and working to understand what lies beneath the foul language, the time spent with the door locked, and the “interesting” style of dress. You will find a vulnerable, changing child who simply doesn’t have insight yet. That’s our job as adults … to gain the insight and act accordingly.
Rather than exhibit anger over disrespectful behavior, acknowledge there’s an emotion that the child cannot express directly lying just under the surface. Kids get hurt a lot easier than most adults realize, so they are compelled to protect their tender hearts by lashing out. If we don’t give them cause to protect themselves (by seeing what’s really going on) they won’t have to be so defensive.
So the next time you see a child “acting out”, ask yourself what’s being communicated. It will be an emotion that the child is too young or too immature to express directly, such as hurt, frustration, disappointment, hopelessness, or something else you can help to identify. Then address the child in those terms, rather than with your own irritation. Say, “You seem upset. Want to tell me what’s up?” or “How about you take some time in your own room until you feel better and we can talk?” or “I remember being your age and feeling that same way. Sit down, and let’s try to make this better together.” You are getting to the root emotion, rather than placing judgment on the child’s behavior. Congratulations! You are on the short-cut to better communication and better behavior with your child.
Copyright © 2011 Tina Feigal