The tricky part with non-verbal communication is that it is always up for interpretation. Take a baby’s cry as an example. More experienced parents claim to be able to make out what the baby wants by recognizing the different pitch of crying. But think about it, the baby simply cries. It cries to be fed, it cries to demand a nappy change, it cries for comfort and so on. It is up to the parents to interpret what the cry really means. And this process of interpretation continues even in later childhood, although I see that in some cases it takes a distorted twist. In the most challenging situations, I have seen parents interpret their children’s misbehaviour as a direct confrontation of their parent’s power, or on occasions I am surprised to see parents actually believe that their children act the way they do because they hate them. But in my experience, children who hate their parents are rare. And in all instances, their experience is fraught with serious abuse.
It is more likely that your child is attempting to say something. Thinking about behaviour as a language automatically removes the guilt from this experience. It is no longer about your child being genetically messed up, or that you are not a good parent. But it is a form of communication. My advice is to ask yourself a straightforward question: what is my child trying to tell me with his behaviour? Take for instance the moment where your child bursts out in a tantrum because you switch off the tablet. The crying can be interpreted as his/her disapproval for your decision and also says something about his/her wish to continue with that activity. It also has aspects of powerlessness, because at that time this decision was entirely up to you, irrespective of what s/he wanted. How would you react then? It makes sense to respond affectionately and to also address this feeling of powerlessness and not only focus on the shouting. Another example is when your child hits his sibling for no apparent reason. Perhaps, your child is saying to his brother or sister that they are in their way; potentially for the attention of mummy! Again, behaviour has to be decoded. And I, or anyone else for that matter, cannot provide exact interpretations of all behaviours on a blog, without actually observing the behaviour. But, I feel that this blog can be an interesting start for parents or carers.
Ultimately it all boils down to the mindset we employ in our strategies of care. The way we look at things sets the pace for our attitudes. I reiterate what I have probably said in every blog; parenting is messy and I do not believe that anyone can do it perfectly. Today, I am not even sure of how healthy it is to pursue perfection with such obstinence. That path is usually high on stress and eats on people in a way which suffocates the beauty of an imperfect life. However, try this idea out. Think of behaviour as a language and ask what their “words” mean. Much like when you try to make out what the french guy in france was trying to tell you when you asked directions for the metro. Accept that interpretations have room for error and that with time you can get used to the messages.
Steve Libreri is a social worker and parent coach within Willingness. He offers parent coaching and social work sessions. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.