The WHY of Behaviors

What is behavior?  Some might say that behavior = being bad.  But look at it this way: all behavior (particularly for babies and little kids but often for big kids and adults too) is communication.  I know it doesn't sound like it at times but all they are trying to do is tell you what they want/need.  Again, I am pulling directly from the course I took on behavior.  This was so eye opening to me when we learned this.
All behavior shown by babies and little kids (and often others) is to either get something or avoid something.  It is that simple.  Once you figure out what they are trying to get or avoid you have something tangible to work with.

What are they doing and is their goal to get:
  • objects?
  • attention?
  • food/drink?
  • stimulation?
  • help/remedy?
  • control?
What are they doing and is their goal to avoid:
  • attention?
  • discomfort/something perceived as scary?
  • a transition?
  • a demand/task?
  • stimulation?

When you see a child acting out in some way, think about what they are trying to get or avoid (what is it that they are trying to tell you) and then decide how you can change the situation so that they are content.  Remember, the need is not always what it appears to be.  They could be getting mad over a toy but actually needing to have some quiet time with you because they are overtired.  You can always refer back to the list above as a way to assess the situation when it isn't so clear what your child needs.

  • Two kids are screaming over a toy.  They are probably trying to say "I want to play with it too!"  You can you add a similar toy so that both kids can have one to play with.
  • Your child is throwing a fit at the grocery store.  They are possibly trying to say "I am hungry!"  You can bring snacks to the store so that you don't have hungry, crabby kids in aisle 5.
  • Your child is hiding her mouth with her hands when it is time to brush her teeth.  You can change a task so that part of the task involves a favorite or fun activity.  For example, I recently started letting my daughter brush my teeth while I brush her teeth.
  • Your child gets a scared look on their face every time you mention a future plan (that they think is scary).  You can practice something before it really happens to demystify it and make it less scary.  My husband gets full credit for that one.  He suggested to our older daughter that they should practice Halloween before it actually happened.  He put her frog blanket on his head and came trick-or-treating at her bedroom door.  We also practice finding Mommy and Daddy's bedroom door when we stay somewhere that is not our house so that when she wakes up at 3 AM and goes looking for us, she's already practiced it once or twice.
  • Your child throws a fit when you say it is time to go to the store.  They might be trying to tell you that it upsets their day when they have no idea what is going to happen and when.  You can make a picture schedule so that your child knows what is going to happen each day.
  • Your kids yell at you when you tell them that they need to come with you while you to run a bunch of errands and then go to a meeting while they are watched by a sitter.  They might be trying to tell you that they want some control over their day/life.  You can ask your kids which store they want you to go to first (fun for little kids).  You could also ask them what special thing they want to do with you or alone later that day or the next day.  Kids don't typically have much control over their daily life so when you can find something that is easy to give up and let them control, do it.  The more control you give them over small things the less they'll be trying to get control in other situations.
I could go on all day... the possibilities are endless.  So next time your child or baby is acting out or upset, ask yourself what they are trying to get or avoid (but can't find the proper way to tell you) and ask yourself how you can help to meet their needs.
Never forget!  You can always do the conflict resolution method I talked about in my previous post and get the kids to come up with a way to fix the problem!

Want to read more on this topic?
Here is a very similar post by Aha! Parenting.com.

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  1. This is very interesting. I am living with a 7 week old boy. And I do feel that most of his behavior is an attempt to communicate. Now most of his communication skills are both subtle (hand and eyes and face position) and some quite overt: voice and facial expression. When I "play" with him, I like to reinforce those communication skills even in such wacky ways as repeating sounds back to him that he makes. Anyway, great blog.

    1. Hi David! Congrats to your whole family! So glad you are enjoying the blog and thanks! Keep up the great play sessions! Stay tuned for a post about favorite baby techniques!!