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How To Understand Childhood Behaviors - The Clues Not The Causes

How To Understand Childhood Behaviors - The Clues Not The Causes

Written by David Kellner

Over this past weekend, I had an experience some might recognize. I was in a local grocery store, attempting to make sense of the shopping list I had quickly scribbled out, when my attention was drawn to presumably a father and his son half way down the same aisle. The little boy may have been nearing 7 years of age and the father was attempting to get the child to follow closely beside the cart. Despite consistent redirection, the child seemed incapable of following the direction, and, as a result, was steadily raising his voice and flinging his arms, gesticulating wildly. He kept repeating with increasing volume, “I want to go home.” His father, slipping in patience, was growing obviously more embarrassed and agitated by the child’s inability to stay near the cart. After a few more contentious moments passed, the father plucked the child from the floor in exacerbation and headed to the front of the store.

In my work, I have found that difficult behaviors in children (or teens) are rarely caused by intentional, willful defiance or manipulation. However, many therapies and educational systems focus exclusively on the behavior of the child or adolescent, developing consequences for misbehavior and rewards for positive behavior. I have learned that if we view children’s behavior as a window into their world and understand misbehavior not as maladaptive, but a valuable insight into the the child’s individual social and emotional needs, we increase our chances of addressing the behaviors in a lasting and meaningful way.

As a parent, teacher or coach it is easy to perceive children’s poor behavior as personal attack, designed to irritate or frustrate. However, their reactions and behaviors are only the most visible part of the iceberg. I believe that it is our job as caretakers to use the clues provided in children’s behavior to uncover their underlying needs and develop meaningful strategies to address those needs.

Mona Delahooke, in her book Beyond Behaviors, describes a Development Iceberg. She talks about behaviors as the visible part of the iceberg that answer the “what” questions about a child — what is happening. However, she encourages her readers to explore the vast unseen part of the iceberg that informs the why of the child’s behavior. These depths explore the possible causes and triggers and facilitate meaningful interventions and strategies which regulate the child.

Delahooke offers that in further defining the individual differences, physical bodies, sensory processing and thoughts and emotions that inform the behavior we can create solutions that contribute to consistent growth and development.

Individual differences are all the things that make us unique as humans — our preferences, our quirks, our defaults and our relational patterns. As we learn to structure environments that account for those differences, and not only tolerate but celebrate those differences, we will foster opportunities for children grow into the world they are experiencing.

The attention to the physical body allows us to determine if the child has had enough sleep, or is suffering from insufficient blood sugar or is being highjacked by hormones. For instance, if a child is irritable, but has not eaten lunch in a timely manner, then our approach will not be to dole a consequence for the behavior, but simple feed the child.

As we attune to sensory processing, we are determining how the nervous system is responding to its environment — Are the lights too bright? Is it too loud? Am I too close to other people? Any incongruent messages in the nervous system can result in “poor behavior” but if we work with the child to determine their preferences, often we notice that the behaviors resolve. The emphasis on thoughts and emotions drives us to consider how the child is formulating beliefs about themselves and the world, and understand emotions as indicators, pointing us in the direction of the problem.

We can create new narratives for our children that emphasize resilience and growth if we learn to speak their native language. We have to look beyond the behavior to decipher the clues that they are giving to their underlying needs. If we address these needs in meaningful ways, we take the first steps toward creating an environment of growth and relational warmth with our kids.

Published: April 20, 2022