When I worked in children’s mental health the idea of behavior being a form of communication became apparent. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the behavioral component of communication and just feel frustrated with the behavior.
But what’s considered “bad behavior” may be the only way your child knows how to deal with stress and fear.
Children communicate in ways that sometimes leaves their parents confused and frustrated. When children are faced with adult-sized stress and only have a child-sized understanding they fill the chasm with behavior. When words fail, they act out.
Tune in and listen when your child is facing the stress of things like deployment, PCSing or leaving good friends behind. Sometimes you can come up with ways to address the behavior, but other times it really is just a matter of time, affection and a lot of reassurance.
Here are some common behaviors to look for from stressed-out children:
Young children may go through a phase where they push, hit and bite. If this happens excessively, or if your child has already dealt with this phase and is reverting back to it, then he is communicating something. Make a game plan with him about what he can do when he feels that way again.
Consider something like: “It’s not OK to push or hit your sister, but you can yell into a pillow or do jumping jacks to let the energy out!”
You can even practice the new replacement behavior. Also, be sure your child is getting enough sleep and enough physical play. These two things can greatly increase the capacity for dealing with frustrating feelings.
Clinging and crying are sometimes a child’s way of telling you she feels insecure or uncertain. Clinging to your leg when you attempt to leave her at school or with a caregiver may be a plea for reassurance. Sometimes, even though it is difficult to do, you have to gently peel her off your leg, hand her to the loving caregiver, reassure her one more time and leave.
This is a way for you to communicate that things are normal. A consistent schedule is really important for security. Be as consistent as possible with pick-up times and routines. A small hankie with your perfume and perhaps a “kiss” of your lipstick on it may be a nice thing for her to carry in her pocket.
Some kids are natural social butterflies, while others feel a little awkward in new settings. If the shyness is sudden and out of character for your child, then he may be telling you he feels uncertain about the boundaries or what is expected of him. If your child is in a new school or you have just PCS’d it may take a little while for him to feel comfortable in his new surroundings. Socializing as a family with others who have children the same age will give your child the opportunity to socialize and break the ice in a safe feeling environment.
Teenagers may look and talk like young adults, but they are still lacking maturity and life experiences. Your teenager may not be talking because she may not know what to say, or she may want to spare you her feelings. The best way to handle a teen who is clamming up on you is to be supportive but not pushy. Remind her that you love her and that you are ready to listen if she ever needs to talk. Sometimes writing things out is easier than sitting in person to chat.
It is very important to be consistent with your children, especially during tough times. Even when little Johnny is sad and missing his deployed father, he needs consistent boundaries and expectations at home.
If your child’s behavior has you worried, or if you feel that you are unable to handle your child’s behavior, get professional help. Find an experienced and licensed professional who can help your child and help you. You can start with a call to your child’s pediatrician or your family doctor who will know where to refer you for help.