As parents we are all familiar with the odd tantrum, meltdown and fighting with siblings.  Dealing with these situations can feel exhausting.  It may not be until later in the day that your child talks to you about something that has been worrying them or has upset them during the day. Often things can feel clearer as the reason for the behaviour becomes understood. As humans, behaviour is our way of communicating; a baby may cry when she is hungry, just like an adult may yawn when he is bored at work. Adults and children communicate something through their behaviour in every moment in every day, even if they are not aware of it.

Although children are learning all of the time they will sometimes have trouble communicating the way they are feeling.  This may be because they do not know the words to describe how they are feeling or understand what they are feeling. At these times, children may act out their feelings or needs. In this way, tantrums or challenging behaviour serves an important communication tool for children. The purpose of the behaviour may be to get someone’s attention, to stop an activity they don’t like, or just because it feels good.

Understanding your child’s behaviour

Children displaying challenging behaviour are sending the message that something is not right or that their needs are not being met in some shape or form. Tricky behaviour may be due to a whole host of different reasons: being hungry; scared; hurt; tired; bored; uncomfortable or in pain; sad or angry. Depending on their age, children may struggle to understand what they want or need, especially younger children.  When children find it hard to communicate their feelings they may behave in ways that get them into trouble such as risky or destructive behaviour.  When children feel unsafe or out of control they may behave in ways to make them feel in control, like being able to kick or hurt someone. A child who has tried several times to communicate what they need, but whose needs remain unmet, will often use challenging behaviour as a way of sending a very loud message.  Understanding what your child is communicating through their behaviour will put you in a better position to respond effectively.

How can we support children to communicate their emotions more effectively?

As parents it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to ‘fix’ things in children’s lives.  When faced with a child’s strong emotions there can be an instinctive drive to make a child (and ourselves!) feel better by taking away these strong emotions.  In an attempt to ‘fix’ things we can unwittingly dismiss the emotions and try to move on before the child is ready.  Children can feel misunderstood and confused by the strong emotions that they are feeling.  They may grow to believe that strong emotions are to be feared, are dangerous or are to be ignored.  This can lead to raised levels of anxiety and difficulties understanding, identifying and managing their emotions as they get older.  A child struggling to communicate their feelings often leads to tricky behaviour.

Making space for a child’s emotions communicates to them that they are valued and how they feel matters.  It can be hard as parents to listen, purely to listen, rather than to solve a situation.  However, in that moment that you provide a non-judgemental and empathic listening space to your child they can feel deeply understood.  Research tells us that this has the knock on effect of raising children’s self-esteem, confidence, improving family relationships and consequently improving behaviour.  Conversely, when this non-judgemental space is not available to a child they may learn that emotions are to be feared, hidden or that they are unmanageable.  Children may begin to believe that what they feel doesn’t matter and is not valued.

We can provide a non-judgemental, empathetic listening space whereby we refrain from engaging our ‘adult brain’ to ‘fix’ the situation.  Initially, we can do this with comments such as:

“That sounds tricky, what’s been happening?”
“That sounds like it upset you, tell me all about it”
“It sounds like you have had a difficult day, what’s been going on?”
“It seems like you’re in a bit of a muddle with that, what’s happening?”

In this moment, you are communicating to your child that you are there for them and you are interested and curious as to what is going on in their world.  We might use language to help the child know that they are being listened to without judgement and empathically.  You can do this by repeating back to your child what you have heard, for example:

Child:”…and then the teacher shouted at me and she was cross that I didn’t understand”

Parent: “So your teacher shouted at you and it felt like she was cross that you didn’t understand?”

This type of communication will encourage your child to explore the emotions associated with this experience.  It is helpful then to validate your child’s emotions and support the development of their emotional language:

“That sounds scary when the teacher shouted, I wonder if that made you feel frightened?”

It is deeply affirming and calming for a child to know that their emotions have been understood.  Through the day, you can comment on emotions:

“I wonder if that has made you feel angry”

“It feels like that has made you really sad?”

“That must have felt very frightening?”

By supporting your child in this way you are:

  • Developing your child’s emotional language
  • Supporting them in understanding their own emotions
  • Helping your child to know that emotions are not scary or dangerous
  • Helping your child to process and manage emotions
  • Supporting your child in learning to ‘self-regulate’ (calm themselves)
  • Communicating that you value every part of your child, even the tricky bits

Sit together with your child verbally acknowledging the difficult emotions.  In this way, your child knows that their parent or caregiver understands how difficult it feels to be them in that moment.

Communicating through Praise and Rewards

How can we encourage children to use positive behaviour to communicate more effectively?  A good rule of thumb is that the behaviour that you praise and reward will always be seen more frequently than the behaviour you ignore.  Using praise and rewards builds a strong relationship with your child and children communicate more effectively with a strong relationship at their foundation.

Catch your child doing the things that you are pleased about and want to see more.  This might be things like:

  • Getting dressed by themselves
  • Brushing her teeth
  • Reading/looking at their books
  • Playing quietly
  • Playing with siblings nicely
  • Sitting quietly
  • Getting into the car nicely
  • Putting on shoes nicely
  • Being helpful (make sure to create situations where your child can be helpful, even if you don’t really need help!)

One of the most effective ways of using this praise is to ‘label’ your praise, for example:

“Thank you for helping your brother, it makes me really happy when you are kind to your brother”

In addition to these verbal praise techniques, you can create a treats ‘grab bag’; put in small items that you know your child will be happy to receive (works best with things you can keep rather than sweeties, for example Lego figures or similar).  When you catch them doing something you’re really pleased about, let them chose one item from the grab bag.  This is a very powerful way in which to praise positive behaviour and therefore see it more often.  Remember to be most effective, praise the behaviour immediately.

When children feel valued and have their needs met, often there is no longer a need to use challenging behaviour to communicate. By helping children to find positive ways to communicate their needs to others, children learn important social and problem-solving skills that will help them throughout their life.  Sometimes when there have been special family circumstances such as: a death in the family, illness in the family, a move of house or school: being looked after outside of the family, communication can become more difficult to understand.  If you are feeling stuck in an unhelpful communication pattern with your child, don’t feel afraid to ask for some support.

Dr Elise Kearney, Consultant Child and Family Psychologist runs a regular weekly clinic from the Fold Therapy Centre. Contact Elise for a free 15 minute telephone consultation (find Elise’s details here)

Dr Elise Kearney consultant child family psychology profile tree field

Dr Elise Kearney – Consultant Child and Family Psychologist