Dr. Elaine Heffner: Communicating through behavior
When mothers wonder what is causing a child’s behavior that is worrying them, they usually know the answer themselves. They know the answer because they have understood the child’s behavior. Their seeming confusion comes in part from not having enough confidence in their own answer. But it may also come from not liking the answer.
Children communicate through behavior. Actually, we all do. As adults we have a greater mastery of language - and hopefully of our feelings - which enables us to communicate to others more clearly and directly. Not always, though. If a spouse blows up seemingly for no reason, we might think something must have happened at work or wonder if we did something to cause the behavior or just feel angry at the outburst.
Everyone communicates through behavior as well as words; we interpret the behavior and our interpretations influence our response. The same is true of our interactions with our children. If a child becomes angry and defiant, or unusually quiet and withdrawn, we try to figure out what that behavior means. The problem comes when our own reaction to the behavior interferes with our ability to understand it.
Angry and defiant behavior is very unpleasant, so the focus becomes the behavior itself - what to do about the behavior. But how can you know what to do about the behavior if you haven’t stopped to understand what it - or your child - is telling you?
If you ask a mother, “What do you think he is so angry about?” mom may say he resents all the attention his sister has been getting or he is angry at her for restricting his watching television. In the same way, the mother of a withdrawn child might say her daughter feels excluded by some of the girls at school or that she may be reacting to too many after school activities.
In both instances our emotional response to the behavior gets in our way. A child’s angry or defiant behavior often makes us angry in turn. Withdrawn or unhappy-seeming behavior can cause us to worry that something is wrong. To the degree that we’re angry or worried, it seems that the behavior must have some special meaning that is beyond our grasp. We may start to label the behavior as “bad” or “not normal” and look for methods that will fix it.
A child’s behavior, (adults’ behavior, too, if you think about it,) has two parts. One part is the communication and the other part is the means of delivery. We often don’t like the behavior - the method of communication - and so forget to think about the message itself.
But sometimes we also don’t like the message. We don’t like it if a child is angry at us. We don’t like to know that something is making our child unhappy. We may not like hearing it, but hearing the message can tell us how to begin to respond to it. The behavior is an expression of how strongly a child feels about something, but the message tells us what he feels so strongly about. We have to address both the message and the feelings. If we want to correct the method of delivery (the behavior), we have to first show that we heard the message.
The point is not to turn away from your own understanding of what your child’s behavior is about - whatever the behavior is. The behavior persists when the child feels not heard. The same is true for us as adults, too. We all want to feel understood, even when we can’t have what we want.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.