Decoding Your Child's Behavior

Written by: Karen Jacobson

It was the first week of school.  On the playground, a 6 year old was going down the slide with other boys his age.  As he waited in line, another child approached, suddenly grabbed his arm and pinched him.  The pincher's mom jumped into action, apologizing and explaining that her son had never acted like this before.  I sat wondering about the incident.  "Why had he pinched?"  "Was he angry at the boy?" "Afraid losing his place in line?" "Did the other boy say something or get too close?" "Was the pincher over-stimulated or exhausted after a full day at school?"  When children act in a hurtful way, we need to set limits, discipline and teach them how to communicate their needs and handle feelings.  But--In order to teach, we must first understand.

Children communicate through their behavior.  As parents, we need to decode the messages our children are sending us.  Kids don’t wake up and say, “Mom and Dad, I am hurting.  Adjusting to a new school year is hard.  I have a new teacher, different kids in my class, harder work.  I am worried.  It is overwhelming.”  Instead they refuse to get dressed, get into power struggles over food or homework, have toilet accidents, forget their lunch, hit their siblings, have stomach aches or tantrums, or want to sleep with mom or dad.    Whether children are 3 years old or 15 years old, the start of school is stressful.  There is change and new expectations.  Parents are often unaware of the many situations that can be stressful for children. 

What can cause stress?  Change, loss, pain, worry, pressure, over-stimulation and new situations can be stressful.  Examples include:

  • Change in routine
  • change in a parent’s schedule
  • travel
  • holidays
  • growth spurts
  • transitions
  • group activities
  • illness
  • doctor visits
  • babysitters
  • large birthday parties
  • learning new skills
  • doing things more independently
  • siblings gaining competence
  • Also, since children also are in tune with parents, parental stress, anxiety, loss and pain can affect kids.

Since children communicate through their behavior, they will show their stress through their behavior.  Typical stress behaviors fall into two categories: regressive behavior (thumb sucking, fear, sleep problems, accidents, baby talk, forgetting, etc.) and aggressive behaviors (hitting, biting, power struggles and backtalk).  

As parents, it is up to us to try to understand our child's behaviors and what might be the stressors behind them. Its not definitely not an easy task!  Could you use some extra support or guidance? Contact Karen at for more advice and parenting tips.

Posted on October 17, 2011 at 8:16 PM