Look Beneath the Surface of a Child’s Behavior

Look Beneath the Surface of a Child’s Behavior

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A recent conversation with a concerned parent reminded me how important it is to look beneath the surface of a child’s behavior. This parent shared that their child was acting out, demonstrating anger and frustration at nearly any request, and showing signs of high anxiety. I listened, asked some questions, and listened some more. Later that day, I imagined how useful a particular gadget from the Star Trek franchise would be for parents—the Universal Translator. Why? Because sometimes the behaviors and voices of our own children can seem as cryptic as if they are speaking a language from another planet.

Look beneath the surface of a child's behavior. Picture of a dark gray computer-type keyboard with the names of different languages on each key. The focus is on a larger blue button that has the word Translate written on it.
Look beneath the surface of a child's behavior. A mother stands out of sight behind her defiant-looking pre-teen daughter and makes a frustrated face.

When that’s the case, what is a parent to do? The short answer is to listen with your heart. While it’s human nature to respond to another’s frustration with an outburst of our own (I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself), if we want to truly understand what’s going on, we must restrain the part of ourselves that responds to frustration with frustration and instead focus on getting to the root of the behavior. When a parent chooses to listen with their heart, they are asking themselves, “What must my child be thinking or feeling to make their behavior feel like the right thing to do?”

I was recently acquainted with a helpful triangular diagram that illustrates how the mind works to influence behavior.

At the top of the triangle, it all starts with a thought or a belief. The bottom angles of the triangle are completed with emotion and behavior. To illustrate: if a child is struggling in school, they might have the thought, “I’m stupid! I can’t do this no matter how hard I try!” Those beliefs will of course generate some very powerful emotions, like anger, frustration, fear, hopelessness, or despair. Finally, those negative emotions will drive changes in that child’s behaviors, such as checking out via digital media and devices, giving up, exhibiting oppositional or defiant actions, changing sleeping or eating patterns, showing loss of joy in previously loved endeavors, and of course, showing symptoms of anxiety.

A triangle diagram with two-way arrows along each side pointing to the words place at the three points of the triangle. The top point says "Our thoughts affect how we act and feel." The bottom left point says "Our feeling affect how we think and act." The bottom right point says "Our actions affect how we think and feel." The diagram illustrates the back-and-forth connections between these three points. When a child acts out, it's important to look beneath the surface of a child's behavior.

It’s also possible that your child is being bullied or being made fun of. Or maybe there is a focus issue or a sensory processing overload of some sort. Any of these experiences or combinations thereof will generate that triangle of events—thoughts or beliefs that circularly influence emotions and behaviors. But unless a caring adult stops to look beneath the surface of a child’s behavior, they will never know the underlying cause of what’s troubling that child.

The point is this: every change in a child’s behavior is significant and presents the caring adults in the child’s life with an opportunity. Instead of only addressing behaviors, look beyond the behaviors at the emotions and the beliefs that generated them to discover what the child needs most at that moment. I have often said that when a child can’t come up with a solution to a problem, they conclude that there isn’t one. I don’t believe it’s an oversimplification to state that many of the troubling behaviors we may see in children—including symptoms of anxiety—often stem from the hopelessness children feel when they draw that conclusion.

So, once you’ve listened with your heart, what comes next? Address the beliefs and the feelings they have generated. What conclusions (beliefs) has your child formed based on their experiences? That they’re stupid and can’t learn? That if they raise their hand to ask for clarification they will be ridiculed or bullied? That they are broken? That the ability to perform academically according to expectation dictates who is allowed to be safe and loved? That they are a failure? That their worth as a human being is determined by how ‘‘smart” they are? There are so many possible beliefs children may assume are true about themselves, but you get the drift. Each inaccurate conclusion/belief requires gentle redirection so that the child’s emotions can be soothed.

A mother comforts her sad daughter. The daughter covers her face with her hands while her mother holds her. When a child exhibits an unexpected change in their behavior, it's time to look beneath the surface of a child's behavior.

But what is a parent to do if their child is shut down emotionally, perhaps having so much anxiety based on the inaccurate conclusions they’ve drawn about themselves that they are overwhelmed or unable to find the words to describe what they are experiencing? Here’s where sharing moments from your own childhood can build a bridge between the two of you. When you share stories of times that you came to a conclusion about what an experience in your own life meant, and how much anxiety it caused you, and how much it would have meant to you to be able to share those burdens with someone else, you help reinforce to your child that they aren’t a freak of nature, but that what they feel and how they are responding to their thoughts and feelings are part of being human.

Your patient interest will help your child realize that they aren’t alone in this, and that even if the next step isn’t clear right at that moment, you will work on it together to discover a solution or work-around.

Cover of the book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn. This book focuses on how parents can use social emotional learning to help their kids thrive. And when a child exhibits an unexpected change in their behavior, it's time to look beneath the surface of a child's behavior. This book can help parents learn to do that.

Many parents are unclear what “social and emotional learning” or “social and emotional support” look like. The process described above is the answer. Of course, this material just touches the tip of the iceberg, as it were. For a more in-depth consideration of action steps and helpful sample conversations, please refer to my archived blogs on dyslexia, and my book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know.

So if a child starts acting out in unexpected ways, it’s time to investigate. Talk. Listen. Look beneath the surface of a child’s behavior. You’ll be glad you did, because it will equip you to help your child through whatever difficulties they are currently facing.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.