Why Is My Kid so “Behavioral?”

No child ever wakes up and decides to be “behavioral.”

Posted Jul 19, 2019

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Behavioral Children
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If you know me or have ever worked with me, you know that this is my phrase: “No child ever wakes up and decides, Wednesday is my day to throw a desk.” That is, no child wakes up and decides to act out. Our children’s and adolescents' behavior is a form of communication when the words can’t be found, and it is our job as the parent, teacher, behaviorist, or psychologist to become the investigators to understand the underlying reason and what our child/student/adolescent is trying to say.

There Are Feelings Behind the Behaviors

Most people see negative or dysfunctional behavior, and the goal becomes to eradicate it. That is, they believe that behaviors are learned and can be unlearned. Well, if we were mice or robots, then that premise would work every time. However, our children are humans, and humans are complex. There is a reason why some of our best interventions don’t work, and that is because the reasons for the behaviors are not often that clear.

The other element that we need to factor into behavior is the adult/authority figure response to the behavior. Stop to think about this—the adult response can change the outcome of a child’s behavior. There are often two possible outcomes when it comes to an adult response to a child/adolescent’s behavior: escalation or moving on. And having a mild response doesn’t mean that you are being “too easy” on the child; it means that you are meeting that child’s needs. So, as much as we take a look at the child’s behavior, we also need to take a look at how the adults around the child/adolescent are reacting, as this can be contributing to behavioral escalations as well.

We can hypothesize that the function of the behavior is to gain attention or avoid or escape a task, but until we gain perspective on the feelings behind the behaviors, even our best of interventions and well-written behavior plans will likely be ineffective.

Listen More than You Speak

I am guilty of this just as much as anyone. I tend to speak a great deal to my own children about their behavior (or lack thereof), instead of asking the questions and actually stopping to listen. Sometimes, the adults (including us as parents) tend to get so caught up in what we “should” do that we can’t let our children/adolescents “get away with this,” that we need to “be tough,” and we lose sight of the fact that our children actually have reasons for their behavior. 

With that said, ask open-ended questions, and then pause, listen, stop speaking. Nod, sympathize, validate, non-verbally, and really listen. Don’t make assumptions; rather, listen to the reasons, thoughts, and feelings that the child/adolescent is sharing. When you listen, you will actually hear the reasons for the behavior(s), which might be: low self-esteem, fear, fear of failure, feeling worried about a family member or friend, feeling overstimulated, or being triggered by a teacher or staff member’s facial expressions, voice, or sarcastic comments.

Punishment Doesn’t Work

If you have a behavioral child or student, you know, by now, that punishment doesn’t work. “Why?” you ask. Punishment causes spite, resentment, and shame, but it doesn’t teach our children what to do instead. For example, instead of flipping a desk when angry, shout, “I’m angry!” We want our child/adolescent to realize that direct communication results in a teacher, parent, or support staff member helping her to take a break and calm the body first, and then the adult can offer ways to work together to get through a frustrating task or situation. Your child has now learned a great deal more than by offering a punishment for flipping a desk.

For many, the idea of not punishing, not giving a consequence of deducting a token/point/happy face, sounds like we are giving in to a raging child. However, this approach of offering a replacement for the behavior will teach our children and adolescents more functional skills in the long-run. Personally, I opt for putting the clipboard and timer down and actually comforting and brainstorming with a child/adolescent.