Understanding and Interpreting Your Child's Behavior

By Craig Murphy, PhD, Core Faculty in the School Psychology Department October 05, 2015

Mental Health Tips from William James College Faculty: Understanding and Interpreting Your Child's Behavior by Craig Murphy, PhD.

Young children are not always very good at telling us how they feel, but they often communicate very effectively through their behavior. Unfortunately, many adults and parents struggle to understand and interpret children's behavior, which often results in temper tantrums, arguments, power struggles, and volatile home environments. Childhood behavioral disorders can be detrimental to healthy home environments and challenging to educational learning environments. But when managed correctly, they are also very responsive to intervention.

Tips for Understanding and Interpreting a Young Child's Behavior

  • Pay Attention: Most parents and adults living or working with children who demonstrate challenging behavior report that "problems come from out of nowhere." This is rarely the case. You need to pay attention to when children struggle and look for themes and/or patterns.
  • Model Positive Problem Solving Skills: Children who demonstrate challenging behavior often do so because they lack appropriate problem solving skills. One great way for them to develop these skills is by observing positive role models. If adults respond to their challenging behavior with punitive or aggressive behavior, it simply reinforces the child's negative behaviors.
  • Listen: When given the opportunity to talk about their challenging behavior, children may surprise you. Although it often takes far longer than we would like, the pay-off will be worth it in the end. So listen to your kids, really listen!
  • Evaluate What Works: Take the time to reflect on how you are responding to your child's challenging behavior and ask yourself a simply question: Is what you're doing working? If not, consider changing your own behavior first.
  • Prioritize: Children with challenging behavior often struggle in numerous areas and settings. Keep your targets for change focused, as durable change takes time.
  • Communication is Critical: Kids struggle to tell us how they feel because they often lack social and emotional language-so do many adults. This takes practice, and once again modeling will go a long way.
  • Use Humor, Occasionally: Humor, if used correctly, can diffuse a lot of anger and hostility. Have fun with kids and help them take themselves less seriously. If you're not sure it's an appropriate time for a joke, however, wait until later.

Life is tough for kids these days and even harder when they don't feel like anyone understands them. When children see adults working hard to understand their point of view so they can solve problems together, they feel connected and part of the solution.