Understanding Your Child’s Behavior Cues

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As parents, we continuously strive for our children to be successful, to be happy, and to behave and participate in day to day activities with their peers and family members.  But, sometimes, parenting children of any age isn’t always easy.  Or, sometimes, it’s much easier said than done.  We wonder why our toddler throws temper tantrums, why our babies cry for what we think is no reason, or why our teenagers pretend that we don’t exist!  Behavior can be such a mystery for parents as well as cause many parents stress and anxiety!  We then ask ourselves, “Why isn’t our child NORMAL?”

The truth of the matter is there is no “normal” anything in life.  When you feel stumped about the way your child acts or behaves at times, it is important not to panic, and to remain as calm and objective as possible.  It is extremely essential for parents to understand and realize that all behavior has meaning.  For example, if a baby is hungry, they typically cry.  If an adult is sad, they may cry or act shy.  When thinking about your child and his/her behavior, try to understand why your child may be behaving this way by following his/her cues.  It may take a bit of detective work, but it is sure to be worth it in the end!  Here are some helpful tips you may want to follow:

Observe and interpret your child’s behavior:

• Notice the sounds (or words) your baby or toddler is using. Does your child sound happy, sad, frustrated, bored, or hungry? When have your heard this cry or sound before?

• What is your child’s facial expression?  What feelings are you seeing on your child’s face

• Notice your child’s gaze. Is your baby holding eye contact with you or has she looked away? (That is usually a sign that a baby needs a break.) Is your toddler holding your gaze? Perhaps she is trying to get your attention or wants to see how you are reacting to a new situation.

• What gestures or movements is your child using? Is your baby rubbing her eyes and pulling on her ear when you try to hold her? She might feel sleepy and be ready for a nap. An older toddler who is on the verge of beginning potty training might start to hide behind a chair or go into a closet to have a bowel movement.

• Think about what’s going on when you see a behavior you don’t understand. Does this behavior happen at a certain time of day (like at child care drop-off or bedtime)? Does this behavior tend to happen in a certain place (like the brightly lit, noisy mall)? Does the behavior happen in a particular situation (like when your child must cope with many other children at one time, like at the playground)?

·Why might your child be acting this way?  What do you think this behavior may mean?

Respond to your child’s needs, wants, or interests based upon your observation

·Put yourself in your child’s shoes – how would you feel under similar circumstances? 

·Remember that all behavior is communicating a meaning, need, want, or lack of something.  What is it that y our child may need, want, or may be missing?  How can you provide them with this?

·Validate your child’s feelings, don’t discourage them!

·Respond to your child in a positive manner – use this chart to help you:

Don’t say…

Do say…

“Stop yelling”

Please use inside voice when we are in the house.  It is much more respectful to speak to people this way.

“You need to behave”

What does, “behave” even mean to children?  Be sure to set clear expectations in your home.  How is it that you expect all members of your family to, “behave?”

“No TV during dinner”

TV is an option before or after we have dinner.  During dinner time, we will discuss _______ instead.

“You need to be nice to your sister/brother/etc.”

What does, “be nice,” mean, and why does your child have to do it?  Give a specific example of what you are looking for him/her to do or act.

“No throwing”

We throw balls and other things when we play outside, not in our house.

“No hitting.”

Hands stay down, thank you.

“No running.”

Running is for outside, walking is for inside.

·If your first try didn’t work, try again. Trying different techniques increases the chances that you will figure out the meaning of your child’s behavior, understand his needs, and validate his feelings.

Help your child – how can you work together to make this better next time?

·You can’t always understand what your child is trying to communicate.  But remember,

you can always try again. When you respond to your child, say out loud what you think his behavior might mean, in a calm, positive manner. For example, you might say to the toddler you pick up, “Are you saying that you want up? I can pick you up.” By using language to describe what the child is communicating, you will be teaching your child the meaning of words and communicating their emotions.

·Look at the situation as an opportunity to learn about your child – what do you know now that you didn’t know about your child prior to this situation? 

·What tools or resources may your child need in the future?

·TEACH your child how they may behave, act, or react differently in the future.  Children do not always know how to behave or act appropriately.  Model appropriate behavior and language for your child throughout daily activities and routines.

All in all, it is essential for parents to understand their child’s behavior, and not avoid situations that may be frustrating.  The more you try to understand, help, and teach your child, the more their behavior will continue over the course of time. 

Heather Grocott is the Director of The Children's Workshop in Lincoln, RI. She earned a BA from Providence College in Elementary and Special Education. She is pursuing a Master's Degree from Rhode Island College in Early Childhood education. Her true passion is not only working with children, but sharing knowledge with families and teachers in order to provide the best early learning experience for all young learners.