Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan may recall a lyric that says, “Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream.” The message here appears to be that the meaning of things may not always be on the surface. We may have to look at, or hear things in a different or deeper way, to understand what is meant by what is said or done.
This may be a useful way to think about children’s behavior. As parents, we look for meaning in our children’s behavior before they communicate verbally. We read the cries of babies, interpreting them to mean the baby is hungry, tired, or needs a diaper change. As they grow, their behavioral communications may become more complicated conveying a wider range of feelings and wishes.
The challenge to us as parents is to consider the motives underlying our children’s behavior and emotional experience while taking into consideration a child’s perspective. Our ability to understand the world from a child’s, rather than from an adult point of view, is what enables us to respond in a more sensitive way to our children.
Some years ago, I was leading a group of parents whose children had little or delayed language and it was interesting to find that in getting to know the children it was possible to understand what they were communicating through their behavior. But just as speech itself can sometimes get garbled, the behavioral communications of these children were often indirect and not immediately clear.
At times, parents did understand what certain behaviors meant, and were able to respond to the children in meaningful ways. At other times, when a child’s behavior was provocative, or in some way unacceptable, the parent involved would read a negative meaning in the behavior. The behavior was seen as a sign of the child’s lack of comprehension or some other deficit of development. This would leave the parent feeling hopeless about knowing how to respond in a meaningful way.
An example of this was a child whose behavior led his mother to believe that she had no meaning to him and, therefore, had no ability to influence his behavior. He often would scratch her and she felt helpless to stop this behavior. He would come into the room where the mother’s group was meeting and stand patiently behind his mother’s chair.
His mother viewed this as misbehavior and tried to order him back to the nursery school room. The other mothers, however, saw this as her child trying to be close to her and challenged her perception of his behavior. Once she understood his behavior in a different way, she was open to the possibility of responding to him in a way that would be more meaningful. Before too long, the child no longer needed to scratch her to get her to respond to him.
Although this example is of a child with serious communication problems whose communications were, therefore, more difficult to understand, it actually points to a pitfall that exists for all parents. When a child behaves in a way that we don’t like, or embarrasses us, our own emotional reactions can get in the way of seeing the behavior as a communication. Then our response becomes one to our own feelings rather than to what a child’s behavior is actually saying.
Understanding a child’s behavior as his or her means of communication is empowering to parents. Most parents are good at it and are already doing it. The next step is providing the words a child can use the next time a similar situation arises.
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.