Accepting Behavior as Communication

Behavior is communication. All actions-good or bad-offer information for us to use, just like a conversation would. We can change our relationships with our children and others just by accepting and responding to behavior as communication.

Any of these behaviors sound familiar to you?

The dog scratches at the door to tell me she needs to go out.

When my neighbor cut our lawn “just to be nice,” basically he told me we let it get way too tall-oops!

My son throwing the puzzle pieces, telling me he’s feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, confused, bored, or that he may need help.

And when he sucks his thumb, he’s telling me he’s tired. When he plays with his hair he’s telling me he’s really tired.

Even newborn infants come into the world ready to communicate with us. They come with built-in reflexes that allow them to tell us what they need. A crying baby tells us he is overwhelmed, sleepy, hungry, or uncomfortable. The baby sucking her tongue tells us she’s hungry. An infant not eating well tells us he may need to burp, poop, or the milk is too fast or slow. It’s our job to interpret these attempts, which tell us what they need.

Listening to behaviors

As caregivers, we can practice being mindful enough to listen and then respond to the behavior, just as if words were used. I’ll be the first person to say – it’s not always easy to recognize and respect the behavior. Just this morning I found myself here:

When my son stopped eating breakfast, he was trying to tell me he was finished. I didn’t listen to the behavior, so he tried to tell me again by pushing his plate away. And when I still missed the point, he threw his food, stood in his chair, and ran from the table, leaving a trail of scrambled eggs. (Have you ever tried cleaning up scrambled eggs?) I immediately felt myself get angry, annoyed, and begin to think I can’t let him get away with that! But then I remembered–he did try to tell me! His behaviors were literally screaming “I’M TRYING TO TELL YOU I’M FINISHED, LADY!!”

I had fair warning food was going to fly, I just didn’t LISTEN to his behavior as communication.

When we are able to recognize the behaviors clearly as communication, we are more able to respond and interact with kindness and empathy, creating a deeper connection with our children and others.

I also find it difficult to listen to my own behaviors sometimes. Like when I find myself hiding in the closet eating Oreos while my child sticks his hand under the door, I’m telling myself I need a break! What happens when I am not mindful or choose not to listen to my own behavior though? I lose patience with my husband or kids and miss the opportunity to connect and communicate my feelings.

Why is this so important?

Respecting behaviors as communication is an especially important lesson for caregivers of children who are “late talkers,” or have poor language skills. Of course we want children to talk, but often I find the child is already using some behavior to communicate. We may just be unaware and miss it.

Does your child tell you he wants something by pulling you to the refrigerator or pointing to the toy on the top shelf? Maybe your child uses eye contact to get your attention. Children may run away or throw tantrums. All those behaviors give us information about what the child is communicating.

What behaviors does your child use to communicate with you?

Part II of Behavior as Communication Series: Learn how to respond to behavior and how to connect with our children during meltdowns. 

Related Articles:

Managing Power Struggles

Punishment vs. Discipline

Communication with Connection 

5 Responses

  1. Great article!! I find that my little one has a wide range of expressions now and I don’t always know how to respond when she’s upset at something (for example, she found the TV remote and we said not for “Cece”, “bye bye” remote! Queue the “waaaaaaaaah!” And pouty face!). Looking forward to your next topic 🙂

    1. Thank you! Little ones learn by being curious, so it makes sense she wants to check out that thing with all the buttons. That pouty face sure can make our job hard when we say no though! When we use consistent expectations, understand her need to explore, and use responsive speech to redirect her, we can communicate with kindness and connection. I try something like, “I see that you’re upset, but the remote is not a toy. When you’re ready, let’s find something else that has buttons for you to push!”

  2. Makes me especially glad to be a mama. I will be the first to tell my 2.5 year old that mommy gets frustrated too or isn’t patient sometimes too. Loved reading about non-verbal cues even when they have words along with it.

    1. Love that! Talking with our children about how we feel models skills for emotional competence and is a wonderful way to communicate with connection.

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