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Behavior Is Communication

Our job as parents gets much easier when we remember that behavior is communication. What is your child trying to tell you? If she’s verbal enough, you can actually ask her. If not, take your best guess, respond to that message, and watch the results to see if you were correct.

For example, let’s say your child is kicking the table leg during dinner. What could your child be trying to tell you?

If she’s verbal, you might start with a question like, “I notice you are kicking the table leg. What’s up, honey?”

If she’s pre-verbal, it might sound like this: “I notice you are kicking the table leg. Hmm, I wonder what’s up?”

Here are some possible messages that you might hear from your child (in kid language) or generate yourself:

  • I’m bored and I need something interesting to focus on.
  • I’m tired and this rhythm is soothing to me.
  • I’m not hungry or I don’t like the food that we are eating.
  • I didn’t get enough fresh air and exercise today.

When we take just a moment to ask ourselves, “What could she be trying to tell me?” we become aware of a variety of potential interventions which are much more likely to be successful than simply telling her, “Stop kicking and sit still!”

If she’s bored and you are annoyed with the activity she chose to generate some action, you can offer an alternative that works better for both of you. Maybe a coloring book, if you want her to stay at the table; maybe an invitation to carry things to the sink for you. Maybe you are happy to excuse her to go play so you can have some adult time. There are infinite possibilities.

Be sure to include her message in your response: “Oh, I understand. You are bored. Hmmm, what can we do about that? Maybe you would like to sweep the floor with your little broom while we finish eating?” This helps to lay down the language pathways that will eventually supplement and replace behavior as communication. Soon enough she will be happy to use words to tell you she’s bored and ask if there’s something else she can do.

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