Does it really matter if we understand a child's behavior? Or should we just try to change or get rid of a so-called "bad" behavior? There are many differing opinions on this, but what I've learned firsthand in my work with children and families, is that when we don't listen to the communication behind a concerning behavior, we can miss a profoundly important message that can have long-term negative effects on that child.
I met a family with a pre-school aged child, who sought my help for severe tantrum behaviors at school around nap times. By the time I met the family, the child was on her third or fourth child care setting. The family had been taking their child to a psychologist for a few months with no marked improvement in the behavior. Based on what the family shared, the strategies that were being used sounded like behavior modification strategies through rewards (i.e. sticker charts) and perhaps some play-based work.
During my very first session with the parents (without the child present), I learned details about the child's behaviors that painted a picture of a trauma response. I knew we had to hear the child's story. During my second session with the child and parents together, we wrote a story, that the child told, about her experiences at each child care setting. During this process, the adults' participation was strictly asking questions, empathizing, and hearing and writing what the child shared. The child also drew and wrote some things on the pages. The adults were careful not to scold the child or "fix" any behaviors during this process. This is important, because if the adults had interjected with their perspective and judgements, I am confident that the child would not have shared the eye-opening details that she did about her experiences.
About halfway through the story, while the child described a nap time situation at the first child care setting she attended, she reported that one of the providers put their hands around her neck (which she actually showed us as she described it). After hearing and seeing the child share this, it made sense why she showed significant protest and aggressive behaviors, especially around nap times. She was likely re-living this traumatic event that was triggered by nap times and she was communicating a need for someone to hear and help her cope with this trauma.
When children, and adults for that matter, have experienced a significant stressor, but aren't able to share and/or process the emotions, this can have deleterious effects on many aspects of well-being. According to Dr. Bradley Nelson, creator of the Emotion Code, "Trapped emotions can affect you physically just as much as they can mentally and emotionally. It is my experience that a significant percentage of physical illnesses, emotional difficulties and self-sabotage are actually caused by these unseen energies." The good news is that children are self-healing geniuses and will express "loudly" (often with tantrums) and persistently that something is wrong. This child was clearly communicating her need to release emotions that were significantly impacting her.
It is my hope that this example illustrating why it is important to understand the meaning behind the behavior, will help us all remember that regardless of the behavior, children need to be heard, and they might just be telling us about something that could impact them for the rest of their lives.