I once had a supervisor tell me that she couldn’t imagine how I provide mental health services to young children. She said, “I just imagine you sitting in a room with a baby laying on a couch.” Young children do not sit on couches and tell us their biggest feelings, fears, or worries. They do not use words. They use behaviors.
One simplified way to view children’s behavior is through the lens of motivation. They are either trying to get something or get away from something. When my 4 -year-old daughter looked right at me and said she couldn’t find her Elsa doll, while holding it behind her back, she was trying to stall bed time. She wanted to continue playing.
If we take the time to pause and ask, “What is this child’s behavior telling me?” we can avoid taking the behavior personally or becoming angry. My daughter wasn’t trying to “lie to me.” She wasn’t acting up to irritate me or start a power struggle. She was using her resources to try and get more play time.
Once you understand the motivation you can use these simple strategies to manage the behavior.
Get down to eye level with your child. Allow them to see the concern and compassion on your face. Use a soft and calm tone of voice. Eye contact and a calm voice help regulate your child’s emotions, allowing them to calm down and accept what’s being asked of them. The key is to be sure you are calm and regulated. A dysregulated adult will create a dysregulated child.
Let’s say someone cuts you off in traffic. You tell your friend the story and she agrees this would have upset her too. It feels pretty good right? Children feel this way too. A 2-year-old who hits another boy who grabbed his toy is feeling angry. Simply stating, “It made you mad when he grabbed your toy,” can often calm the child down enough to problem solve the situation.
Even young kids can understand complex feelings. Begin by teaching them what these feelings look like. Use your own face, pictures in books, or even opportunities when you both notice other kid’s feelings. Describe what you see. “His face is scrunched up like this and his hands are in fists like this.” Make sure you show them with your own face and hands and give the feeling a name. You can also use times when you are feeling something, “Mommy is frustrated that it’s so cold outside.” The more children understand their feelings the more likely they are to use feeling words instead of behaviors.