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Behavior as a Form of Communication

by Esthela Manrique

A kid throwing a tantrum in a store
A baby refusing to eat
A third grader not wanting to do her homework
A 7 year old boy picking up after himself

Can you picture these scenarios? What would you think about these children? Unfortunately in many cases we are just very quick to judge and try to understand children’s behavior in terms of our own experiences or from our adult point of view, instead of trying to understand what the child is trying to tell us with his behavior. Behavior is a form of non-verbal communication, where we express ourselves with what we do. For children who do not have the language to express themselves or who might not know what they want, acting out is their way to tell us what they need. It’s our job and many times our challenge to understand them.

Once we understand what the child is trying to tell us, things become so obvious. At the beginning it might be frustrating to understand why it is that children behave in certain ways. This frustration might lead us to overreact in ways that might just complicate things and interfere in our ability to understand the message that the child is sending us. How many times have you thought, “He is doing it on purpose”, “She just wants to make me angry”, and react based on your own feelings, not in response to your child’s needs. A negative cycle is then created, where the undesired behavior is reinforced.

So, what can we do? How can we go beyond the “inappropriate behavior” and understand the message the child is sending us? The good news is that as adults, we can learn to understand children’s behavior and respond to it in ways that will teach them better communication skills to obtain what they need. We can teach children to become responsible for their behavior and find effective ways to obtain what they want. Behavioral Scientists have taught us to understand and modify behaviors. From their theories we know that behind a child’s inappropriate behavior there is a need for attention, or to avoid something undesired, a power struggle or a need for belonging. By changing the environment and our response to their behavior, we can start modifying the unwanted behaviors. Ultimately, what we want is for children to be responsible for their behavior and adopt more effective ways to communicate what they need. It’s an ongoing process in which parents and children respect each other’s needs, set limits and define roles.