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Understanding Child Behavior

Human beings develop a variety of behaviors to communicate, from the time they are babies, all the way into adulthood. This includes children with increased medical needs and those who have been adopted. When babies and children do not yet have the words to express themselves, they rely on these behaviors to signal to their caregivers their daily wants, needs, thoughts and emotions.  

For example, a baby may use fussing and wiggling of his body to indicate his growing hunger or discomfort due to a wet diaper. A toddler might refuse a new food by tossing it on the floor as a way to express her discomfort or stress. A young child may use hitting or screaming to convey her frustration during playtime with a peer.  

Whatever the behavior and no matter how big or small, each carries significance for a child. When caregivers have an understanding of the underlying meaning behind behaviors, they are more equipped to provide responsive and nurturing support. Furthermore, when caregivers can attach meaning to behaviors — especially the most challenging — their capacity for holding empathy and patience expands.  

When caregivers have an understanding of the underlying meaning behind behaviors, they are more equipped to provide responsive and nurturing support.

When behaviors arise, it’s normal to want to “fix” them. However, a behavior is a symptom of something deeper going on for a child. This implies that in order to find success, we must pause and take a moment to properly identify the hidden cause. It can be easy to try to eliminate a behavior without fully knowing the cause. Yet, this can undermine efforts toward navigating challenging behaviors, or worse, amplify the behaviors. 

7 Things to Consider When Challenging Child Behaviors Arise 

1. Is my child well-nourished and hydrated? Hunger and thirst are important factors in the behavior we see in children (and even in adults). Remember the meaning of the word “hangry?” If a challenging behavior pops up and a child is hungry or thirsty, there may be a connection and a potential solution.  

2. Is my child feeling all right? How is the child’s health? Are they feeling healthy or sick? Are they well rested or has their sleep been impacted? Is it getting close to a nap, bedtime or a time of day where they typically become more fatigued? A child who is sick or missing out on essential sleep is more likely to display behaviors that might be perceived as challenging. 

3. Is something happening with development? Children have typical bursts and regressions in their development, and these happen frequently over the course of their early lives. During such times, their bodies are working hard, which can take extra energy. This can sometimes lead to shifts in other parts of their lives, such as how they are sleeping or eating — leading to potential emotional outbursts. Additionally, when children learn new skills, such as crawling, walking, reaching and grabbing or making their caregivers laugh, this novelty can lend itself to new behaviors.  

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4. Is something different in their schedule, activities, routines or among their caregivers? Changes within a child’s day, big or small, can have a ripple effect on the behaviors we observe. Has there been a shift in a child’s schedule? Was an activity performed differently? Has something new been added to their schedule, such as a doctor’s appointment or medical procedure, or have they recently started a new activity such as childcare or swimming lessons? Is there a new caregiver in the picture? Even the smallest and most positive of changes can create subtle stress for a child, which can prompt changes in their behavior. This doesn’t mean changes can be avoided, but what it does mean is that the way in which we introduce them is paramount.  

5. Is an experience or activity too easy, too hard or brand new? When something isn’t working well for a child, such as an activity or experience, often they tell us this through behavior. A task that is not directly aligned with their developmental skill level, i.e., one that is too hard, too easy or new, can evoke stress within a child’s body. Similar to when a change occurs in a child’s routines or activities, this mismatch of activity with a child’s skill or knowledge level can negatively impact the child’s behavior. Offering well-matched activities and/or appropriately scaffolded support is essential.  

6. Are their social-emotional needs being met? Regular moments for connection with children are essential to their growth and development. Furthermore, they can assist in reducing the potential for difficult behaviors. Often, unmet social-emotional needs are the catalyst for behaviors we might observe in children. Are they receiving enough thoughtful, undivided attention from important caregivers? Are they getting the types and amounts of physical contact and soothing that resonate best with their bodies? Are they consistently feeling seen and heard by others? Do they feel safe, secure and unconditionally loved? When a child’s social-emotional needs are repeatedly understood and fulfilled by those around them, they are less likely to rely on other behaviors as bids for this fulfillment.  

7. How is the caregiver’s regulation? The way a caregiver is feeling directly impacts the way a child is feeling and behaving. How is the caregiver feeling in this moment? Are they feeling anxious, tired, frustrated or well regulated (i.e., calm and balanced)? Anxiety is the most contagious emotion; however, calmness is also incredibly catchy. When caregivers positively shift their own state to a place of regulation, often the state of their child will follow.  

Feeling Stuck

Sometimes despite a behavior, children just do not know what they truly need at the moment. At times, caregivers are also unable to identify the deeper reason for a child’s behavior. Making peace with this potential reality is important. You might feel stuck but realizing that it’s not a failure of the caregiver is fundamental and powerful. Just because a caregiver cannot always understand the meaning behind a behavior does not mean that it’s impossible to rectify the situation. It only means that more time and greater efforts might be necessary to move forward. Honoring the process and offering grace to each caregiver in these moments is an imperative step in the process.    

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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.

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