Often we think of “bad behavior” in terms of poor compliance and needing more discipline. While a child may use behavior to test boundaries, often it is the child’s way of communicating something important to you. Your child may have big feelings that she doesn’t know how to express, and so it comes out in what seems to be mystifying behavior.
It is first important to establish, what is the pattern of behavior? Does it happen at a certain time of day? Or a certain time during the week? Or in particular contexts? For example, you notice that tantrums happen only during the morning routine, or only on Mondays, or just on P.E. days. Have there been changes in your child’s routine?
Next, you need to consider your child’s temperament. If you have a sensitive child, a small change like rushing the morning routine by 15 minutes may be dysregulating. Unexpected changes in schedule may also cause a negative behavioral response. If your child is highly active, having to sit for a meal may be nearly impossible, even with a large number of rewards or consequences. If your child becomes tired or overwhelmed as the week progresses, you may see more challenging behaviors at the end of the week as your child’s tolerances decrease.
Finally, you need to consider your own responsiveness to tricky behaviors. If you find that you escalate with your child, you may be fueling the behavior. If you just ignore the behavior, your child may use bigger behavior to get your attention. Does your child get lots of hugs, do they get to avoid a demand, or do they get a break? Sometimes behavior is increased (or decreased) by the reaction it receives.
Your goal is not to interrupt or “break” behavioral patterns, but rather, to first try to figure out what is underlying the behavior? Once you have a theory (or two), you can then create a strategy to change it. If, for example, you feel that your child is sensitive and has a hard time with changes, try creating a more consistent schedule. If you feel that your child is trying to get attention, then set designated time in the day for dedicated interaction with your child so that they don’t have to use attention-seeking behaviors. If your child is pushing boundaries, then begin to make a plan before activities where the boundaries are laid out, and then follow through with them. If your child can’t settle down at night, maybe he needs more designated physical play during the day. If your child has an emotional need, it may take more detective work to figure out, and it sometimes helps to have a counselor.
Here are some reminders:
- Behavior is often a way to communicate a need.
- When you have a behavior you don’t want (hitting), identify the behavior you do want (using your words) and focus on that.
- Avoid vague descriptions of behavior, such as “act respectfully.” Be specific – for instance, “When I call your name please stop and turn around to look at me.”
- Remember to positively reinforce the behaviors you want!
Originally published in Maui Family Magazine.