All behaviour is a form of communication and understanding what your child’s behaviour is actually saying in the moment is so empowering.
When you know what is happening behind the behaviour is easier to know how to respond correctly and also not to lose your sh*t about it.
I get it children (and especially toddlers) can drive us nuts!!
We can fall into a pattern of thinking that they are doing things to manipulate us or to just be downright annoying.
(FYI The part of your child’s brain that can plan ahead and make a conscious decision to manipulate you won’t be fully formed until they are in their twenties)
Understanding behaviour can also help you stop your child’s behaviour from escalating and turning into full blown tantrums.
This is especially helpful for anyone who has a toddler or highly emotional child!
Below are the four things your child’s behaviour is actually communicating:
This behaviour is caused by your child either wanting to escape a situation or having to do something. Some examples would be that they don’t want to go to the shops, they don’t want to stop playing when you ask them to, they don’t want to be at a specific place anymore (e.g. the shops), they don’t want to help pack up, they don’t want to hug someone goodbye, they don’t want to go to bed etc.
This behaviour is really quite common. Next time you ask your child to do something and they don’t agree watch to see how they respond. You will likely see some “escape behaviour” in action.
Knowing that they are trying to escape a situation can help you reframe how you ask or approach the situation to avoid their behaviour escalating. For example; “I know you don’t want to go to the shops right now but we need to get food for dinner. I’m going to set this timer for 5 minutes. Let’s play together until the timer goes off and then it’s time to get in the car.”
This behaviour is motivated by your child wanting to gain something tangible. This could be getting a different meal for dinner, an ice cream or treat at the shops or the toy they just saw in the window.
Your child knows if I act up or throw a tantrum mum or dad might give in and give me what I want. When it’s dinner time if your child refuses to eat the meal in front of them because they know they’ll get bread and butter instead is an example of how they have learnt to use their behaviour to receive something they want.
This type of behaviour needs to be handled through having clear boundaries in place, remaining firm (but loving) and using appropriate consequences if appropriate to do so.
One of the easiest ways to avoid this sort of behaviour is to not give in and stand firm in the first place. Once your child learns that they can use behaviour to get what they want, they’ll repeat the behaviour over and over.
If your child throws massive tantrums to get what they want we call this an “upstairs tantrum”, because they could stop the behaviour immediately if you gave in. This is not an emotion based tantrum that we often see in toddlers where they are overwhelmed by things. Instead this is a behaviour your child has learnt could get them what they want.
Sometimes your child just needs some attention from you. They will engage in behaviour to receive your attention, whether it’s positive or negative attention. Children aren’t picky when they want attention and will act out to gain our attention.
If you notice your child is acting out because they want attention then the best remedy is to provide them some quality one on one time. If you have had a busy day running errands or your child has been at school all day they may just need you to fill up their “bucket” a bit by spending time with them. If you are busy having to get dinner ready or do other jobs then invite your child to help you with the task. You might be surprised how willing they are to help you when they are after your attention.
The last type of behaviour is when your child engages in behaviour because they like the feeling it produces inside of them or it reduces a feelings they don’t want to have.
These types of behaviours are often unconscious and your child might not be aware of them. A really simple example would be your child sucking their thumb. They might suck their thumb because it offers them comfort and they like the feeling it produces. Or they might suck their thumb when they are feeling anxious or worried because it helps them to feel better in the moment.
I have a great personal example of automatic behaviour from my son. When he was nervous in a new situation he would put his hand inside his mouth. I could gage how worried he was based on whether he had one or two hands in and also how much of his hands were in his mouth. If he was only a little bit nervous he would put the fingers of one hand in his mouth and suck them. If he was incredibly nervous basically both of his entire hands would both be inside his mouth.
Now if I didn’t understand that this behaviour was helping him feel better I could have made the mistake of having him pull his hands out of his mouth and then left him with all these nervous feelings and no way to self sooth them. Instead, once I understood what was behind the behaviour I was able to help him use a different strategy to manage his anxiety instead of putting his entire hand in his mouth. He has now grown out of this but it’s just an example of an automatic behaviour.