Listen Up! They're talking! An example of how children use behavior as a form of communication.

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The other night, we came home from school and my daughter had homework to do. It was a math assignment having to do with subtraction, and she had a really difficult time. Such a difficult time, in fact, that she was frustrated, she was angry at me, she was banging on the counter, and she walked away. And I said to her, “It’s ok that you are feeling frustrated. We’ll try again later.” (And I figured I’d let her teacher know that she was having a tough time.)


The Message


Then I made dinner, and called the girls down for dinner, and my daughter who had the homework, said, “I want to sit by myself.”


I said, “OK,” and I set up her plate at the counter near us. I gave her the space it seemed she needed.


My younger one said, “Hey, what’s the matter with her? Is she mad at me?”


I said, “No, I think she’s actually mad at me.” I knew what the real story was—she was mad about homework, but I didn’t want to escalate the fight. I figured, let me give us both some space.


As the younger one and I had dinner, the older one pouted for a bit. After a few minutes, the older one said, “Actually, I’m not mad at you. I’m just frustrated with myself, because I don’t know how to do my homework.”


Wow! That was amazing!


Children behave in certain ways, they tantrum in certain ways because they don’t know how to communicate effectively with words. So earlier, she was so flooded with frustration when she was trying to do her homework that she couldn’t say, “I am so angry, I don’t want to do this homework,” or whatever it was. And it wasn’t until later that she was able to—in an amazing way for a 6 1/2-year-old child—say, “I’m actually not mad at you. I’m frustrated at myself, because I can’t do my homework.”


The Importance of Space


And that makes sense, right? I understood her at that point. But it was only because I allowed her space that she was able to express herself on her own. It could have escalated in so many different ways.  She needed time and space.


We, as parents, have our own agenda of how we want things to go. I make dinner and I expect my kids to sit at the table and eat dinner, as a family, together. That’s my agenda. There’s really no reason why we can’t stray from that every now and again. This does not to be a boundary that I hold in stone and say, “There is no budging from this.” Thank goodness I was able to say, “OK, this is a boundary I’m flexible with. I’ll let you sit where you want to sit.” What I was doing in that moment was letting go of my agenda. I was letting go of my need to control the situation, and allowing her needs, at that moment, to take over—which is fine! I can’t always give in or be flexible with boundaries. But in this moment, I was able to. I was able to let go of my agenda and just focus on her needs. And at that moment, her need was to sit separately from me and her sister. That was one thing that worked really well, as far as making sure this didn’t escalate into something else.


Taking the Time to Breathe


The other thing is, of course, the breath. I talk about the breath all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I breathed that night—because I was trying to get dinner on the table. And I think all of us know what that’s like. We get home from afterschool activities, and we’re rushed, rushed, rushed. Trying to get homework done, trying to get dinner on the table, trying to get them bathed and ready for bed, and all the nonsense that comes along. Of course, I was feeling stressed. But my breath really reminded me to take a minute. My breath slowed me down.  My breath slowed down my heart rate.  My breath released the tension in my muscles. 


My breath created space, which then created opportunity, for me to think,


“What else can I do in this situation?”


Reactions Matter


The other thing is, I didn’t react to the situation with fear. With fear that, “Oh my goodness, she’s speaking terribly to me—what is she going to grow up to be like if I don’t correct her now?” I didn’t react with fear by saying, “Oh my goodness she’s not going to eat her dinner. She’s going to go to bed hungry!” A lot of us react with fear. Instead, I responded with compassion, and that’s what she needed. I couldn’t push too hard, but she needed to know, “I’m here for you; I’m here.”


After she said, “I’m actually not mad at you; I’m frustrated with myself,” all I said to her was, “I understand.” That’s all I said. And then she said, “You know what, I want to come back and sit with you guys.” I didn’t push that. I didn’t tell her what to do.  On her own, she wanted to reconnect.


Freedom of Expression


I would have been fine if we had continued the rest of the dinner with her sitting at one counter, and me and her sister at another. But I gave her that room to express herself, in whichever way she needed to work through that process, and because of some skill building that I’ve used over the years, she was able to verbalize what her needs were.


Reacting With Compassion


Giving them the opportunity, giving her the opportunity was important, and like I said, responding with compassion, instead of reacting with fear, is huge. A lot of times our reactions are knee-jerk reactions, because it comes from a place of fear, and we have to do that like fight-or-flight response. We have to get out of there or fight back, and attack our kids, which is not really the best approach if we want to create an environment of honest communication. I’m glad I was able to respond with compassion in that moment. I’ll tell you what, I don’t always do that. Sometimes I do react in a way that isn’t helpful. But I was really proud of that moment, both on my part, but also on her part.


These skills that we give our children now, they might not work every day, but with enough practice and modeling, role modeling, and examples that I give to my children that shows what expressing your feelings should look like—and can look like—in a healthy and safe way, those things work. It just takes some patience on our part to trust that our children will do the right thing. That’s just one example I wanted to share with you, that my agenda did not take over. It was really me focusing on her needs.


The Approach


The breath that I took made that space, which created the opportunity for me to look at the situation from a different perspective, recognizing that this behavior was her form of communication. The way she tantrumed and mouthed off to us was her way, at the time, of communicating what her needs were.


She had a need, and her need was,


I need someone to help me feel like I’m not so stupid because I can’t get my homework done.


 And the final thing is responding with compassion, instead of reacting with fear.


I hope those things are helpful. I hope this example was helpful. I would love to hear from you. If there has been a time that you saw a behavior, and you knew that that behavior was really your child’s way of expressing themselves, and whether you handled it the way you wished you would have handled it, or maybe handled it the way you didn’t really want to handle it, please post it! Send me a message—I love hearing from you, and I love being able to share some of what you share with me with others. It’s helpful to know that we’re not alone in this parenting thing.