Responding to Behavior as Communication
In part I, we learned how to increase our awareness and acceptance of behaviors, providing ways to connect with our children. If you missed it, read go back and read it first for a better understanding.
Responding to behaviors as communication is where we begin to change our relationship with our children. This is our opportunity to teach children how to communicate, connect with others, kindness, empathy, and self-regulation. Here we are able to gently guide our children toward independence in their world.
Responding to Behavior
When I began my journey as a mother of a tiny human, I felt very strongly he depended on me to meet his needs. I was happy to meet them all. Around his first birthday I celebrated his increasing independence and ability to communicate using gestures and sounds. But it was also the same time as his sleep regression began and much unsolicited, but well-meaning advice, from others. So, in my exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy as a mother, I succumbed to the message our society promotes – that he now needed to learn to “behave.” He was expected to be cooperative, polite, and follow commands, all according to adult expectations. These expectations conflicted with my mom vision. The more I tried to force those societal “norms,” the worse my toddler’s behavior became and the worse I felt.
After suffocating in my role as a mom, I gave up and returned to work as a pediatric speech-language pathologist. At work, I got to see families successfully using communication strategies in therapy to increase language with children, and it hit me. Why couldn’t those same strategies work for me as a parent? I have a background in child development, knowledge as a communication expert, and a tower of conscious parenting books on my nightstand, yet this is what it took to finally come together. Partnering with these families allowed me to fully commit to communicating while creating connection with our children.
Brain Development in Children
Rebecca Thompson, author of the book Consciously Parenting describes two states of behavior that all people have: regulation and dysregulation. Dysregulation occurs when a person experiences stress and is unable to manage it effectively. Regulation happens when a person feels calm and in control of our mind and actions. When we are regulated, we use the prefrontal cortex in our brain – the part that controls our decision making, judgement, perception of others, reasoning, problem solving, and much more. This part of the brain is so important that it continues to develop until around age 25.
When we are dysregulated or stressed, we use the center of our brain known as the amygdala. When we use this part of our brain that controls our emotions, we are unable to be rational, and research by Dr. Bruce Perry even suggests that our IQ can drop 25 points in this state. This is why trying to reason with a toddler who is using their emotional brain will not work.
When we become extremely dysregulated, we use the brainstem at the base of our skull. This is where our “fight, flight, or freeze” is activated. It is our survival brain that protects us in life-threatening situations. We are not able to be rational at all in this state. Dr. Perry says our IQ can drop 50 points. Whoa!
So how do we respond?
When we accept that all behavior is communication and remember our children’s brains are still developing, we are better able to respond with love and kindness. As healthy adults, we have the ability to self-regulate, adjust, and access our prefrontal cortex in our brain that allows us to act rationally. We have the language and communication skills to model for our children.
A child who is dysregulated is disengaging from their environment and is emotional. They need more support from a caregiver. A child who is completely dysregulated and already “tantruming,” running away, fighting, or not responsive to instructions need a different approach. Remember, there is no space left to be rational in this state. Explanations and consequences will not be effective because their brain cannot process it. That is why punishments don’t work when children are already emotionally acting out. They need comfort and help to understand the intensity of their feelings in this moment. When the child is back to a calm state, then you have their attention again. Now you can discuss your expectations and discipline if necessary.
Even as we try to recognize behavior as communication, we may not always understand what is being said by the child or what is needed in that moment. That’s ok. Yes, it’s nice when we can decode what the behavior is telling us. But unfortunately, we can’t read minds. There will be a breakdown in communication sometimes. We don’t need to know why the behavior is occurring to respond to our children.
Here’s 5 strategies that will increase your child’s ability to communicate with you.
1. Give validation.
Validate their feelings to help them feel safe and begin to develop emotional competence.
- Instead of: “You fell down. You’re okay.”
- Try this: “I’m sorry you fell down. I understand you’re feeling sad. I feel sad too.”
2. Get down to their level.
Remember a time when someone talked down to you? Doesn’t feel great. It’s about power and control, rather than comfort and connection. We literally talk down to our children if we do not get down on their level.
- Instead of: Lecturing and punishing from above
- Try this: Kneel or sit down to meet the child’s eyes at their level before you respond to a undesired behavior
3. Use specific praise for effort.
- Instead of: “Good job!”
- Try this: “Wow, you worked really hard to put on your shoes! That was kind of you to help your sister.”
4. Increase their responsibility by telling them “you can choose.”
- Instead of: “Stop yelling. Quit hitting.”
- Try this: “You can choose to speak with kindness or you can choose to play alone. You can choose to use gentle hands or choose to have quiet time in your room.”
5. “When you’re ready.”
This phrase helps acknowledge the behavior without reinforcing it, distract from the undesired behavior, and make a plan to move forward.
- Instead of: Ignoring the negative behavior completely.
- Try this: “When you’re ready, you can put on your shoes to play outside.”
Next time you see your child having a difficult time regulating their emotions or communicating with you, allow yourself time to take a deep breath. Acknowledge your own frustration. Give yourself some grace. Your little one only wants to connect with you.
Debbie Zeichner – Parent Coach
Dr. Bruce Perry -Child Trauma Expert