What is your child’s mis-behavior really all about?

Originally posted Sept. 4, 2009

We parents often scratch our heads and wonder about our kids’ undesirable behaviors, but what if they serve some very real purpose? While we may want to set limits on them and often should, sometimes it can be helpful to also ‘listen’ to what these behaviors are trying to tell us.

Try to think of your child’s behaviors as little flags, drawing you toward something deeper that requires your thoughtful attention.

For example, no matter how old we are, we often unconsciously manage stressful circumstances beyond our control by asserting power and control over the things we can control. When you’re little, that can mean eating when you feel like it and potty-training where and when you’re good and ready. It also means utilizing whatever resources you have at your disposal, which reminds me of a letter I recently received from a reader:

I have a 2 ½- year- old son. He used to bang his head into the wall or floor when he got angry or frustrated.He appearedto grow out of this stage, but recently has regressed. He is typically a very loving and fun child. He loves to play baseball and soccer and is willing to try anything, including new foods, but lately he’s become a very rough and tough little boy, with the help of the neighbor boys. They are six months older than he is and do have a habit of ganging up on my son from time to time. My son used to just cry when this happened, and we’d insist on an apology and redirect the boys, but recently my son has taken matters into his own hands and has begun head butting one of them instead. I haven’t witnessed this behavior with other kids. I’m concerned that my son is going to seriously injure this child and/or himself. I have heard about kids biting but never the head butting. I don’t know what to do other than to keep the play dates to a minimum, with constant supervision. I don’t feel I can leave my son in a room with these boys. Is it possible that there is a problem with my son? Is this a sign of some disease (autism)? Should I call his doctor?

Your child is still very young, but he seems mighty resourceful already. Crying didn’t do the trick, so he’s employing whatever other resources he has in an effort to make his feelings known. It makes sense that he would be angry and want to stand his ground in this situation. Though I don’t endorse his methods, his response indicates an inclination toward self-preservation and an ability to be his own advocate, attributes which will serve him well throughout his life. You can certainly redirect him to use his words to get his point across, but at 2 ½, when language skills aren’t fully developed, it’s not nearly as satisfying as a good head butt. Makes sense to me.

Head butting, biting and temper tantrums can be quite disconcerting for parents, but they’re quite typical for toddlers. These behaviors tend to subside as children master language and learn to use and discover words that effectively express their feelings of anger and frustration. Our mastery of receptive language – the ability to comprehend others’ speech – typically develops more rapidly than our ability to express our own.

Imagine how frustrated and desperate you might feel if you could not yet speak in ways that others understood?

Many local libraries offer sign language classes for babies, young children and their parents, with the goal of bridging the gap between kids’ receptive and expressive language skills. Aside from being a nifty thing to learn (and easier to pick up than expressive language, for our little ones), I hear that this often provides tremendous relief and fun for many families during this normal developmental transition.

As for playmates, your instinct to closely supervise your son’s playdates with this particular child is right on, but I’d also encourage you to consider broadening his social circle. Your son isn’t likely to feel the need to resort to head butting with other children, who might be more willing to play fair. Limit the occasions when he ends up resorting to head butting, as the more he uses it themore it gets reinforced as a tool for dealing withothers who frustrate him. It sounds like you’re already headed in the right direction with this.

I would never discourage you from consulting your child’s doctor, but nothing you’ve mentioned makes me urge you to run to the phone. Head banging and butting are certainly on the list of symptoms often exhibited by kids with autism and other developmental delays, but given the prevalence of these particular behaviors among typical toddlers, I wouldn’t be alarmed.

But do listen to your child’s behaviors. This oddly simple shift in perspective, where you reframe your child’s undesirable behaviors as clues, can really work wonders. You get to rise above your irritation and worry, and what you discover may make all of the difference.

Tips for Parents:

Did you know that early-childhood head butting could simply be a symptom of an ear infection? (You know how you sometimes tap on your head to shake out the water after a vigorous swim? Same idea, here.) Have your pediatrician sneak a peek to rule it out.

Avoid using physical punishment, which only communicates that aggression, including head butting, is an acceptable way to handle frustration and conflict.

If ‘listening’ to an undesirable behavior reveals no insight into what troubles your child, and setting limits on it seems only to inspire more of the same behavior, try simply ignoring the behavior and redirecting his attention toward some other activity. Behaviors will often diminish or disappear altogether with this method. If your child remains troubled, however, he may find other flags (new behaviors) to wave until you ‘hear’ him.

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