Finding the "Why" Behind Child Behaviors

Today has been incredibly hard. You are feeling very “blah.” You’re in between trying to clean up around the house, repeating yourself for the tenth time (literally), remembering to thaw food from the freezer for dinner (or do you have to order take-out?), and you’re just trying to just catch a moment to breathe.

Meanwhile, your toddler is going full speed ahead. Crashing around the living room, dumping the entire toy box in the den, crying for no reason, not listening to a word you say... You just want to scream!

Trust me, I’ve been there too. You want to pull your hair out, crawl up into your favorite blanket and cuddle and kiss your toddler all at the same time. Parenting is a roller coaster, and yet there is always the end of the storm that reminds you of what unconditional love is (which is also quite more noticeable when they are sleeping).

How do the Instagram moms do it? Perfect photos, cheery smiles, it even looks like they haven’t missed a night of sleep, they’ve never deal with an extreme temper tantrum and they definitely don’t have their child screaming in the background. I can tell you how! What you’re seeing is just a 10 second representation of their day. And guess what? They are just like you and thousands of other parents who have had a tiring day. They’re human, just like we are.

Over the years, I’ve heard the same story from parent after parent. One of the concepts that helps them the most is understanding the “why” behind behavior. Once mastering this concept, parents often report that they feel less guilty, have shorter to no emotional response to their children’s outbursts, and have a better relationship with their children because they begin to understand their needs.

Taking a Closer look at Problem Behaviors

It is so easy to be caught up in a whirlwind of feelings when our children act out or when your toddler won’t stop crying. Next time you’re googling “How long do tantrums last?”, remember they are new to this world and still have lots of difficulties communicating their wants and needs. We don’t want to invalidate them by ignoring their tantrums.

Often, children engage in what we as adults call “problem behavior” because they can’t describe to us what they need in the moment. Sometimes, they might not even know! I challenge parents to take a closer look at screaming, yelling, tantrums, throwing and dumping behaviors and try to find what happened right before the behavior started.

Some parents use devices such as cameras to go back and really decide what started it all or some parents just simply take a deep breath and play back the first 15 seconds in their mind to find what triggered the behavior.

Once you choose what started the behavior, figure out a solution to THAT problem. Most often children engage in emotional responses because they can’t communicate the problem, or they don’t have a solution to the problem that they can perform themselves.

Offer a possible solution to your child once they are calm. While your child is upset, they won’t be able to hear your potential solutions. Comfort them as best you can and wait until they’re ready.

Case Study: Getting to the Bottom of Your Toddler’s Problem

A parent once asked me to come in for a home visit because a tantrum was almost predictable around snack time after school. The mom was so flustered by it, it happened every day and she even took some duration data on it and said that it lasted anywhere between 15-30 minutes! I’m not sure how long you all can tolerate crying and rolling on the floor, but that is a long time!

When I saw it happen, I was prepared for the length of the tantrum to be long but quickly realized that it was about the presentation of the snack that Mom had put out on the table. This child had been used to eating apples whole, but Mom took the time to cut the apple into slices.

I swapped out the plate of apples for just a whole apple and had Mom offer it while modeling a question “whole apple?” You wouldn’t believe how fast that kiddo got up, requested vocally “whole apple!” and stopped crying.

As independent as our children may want to be, the toddler age is a very sensitive time that is filled with learning. In the example above, Mom had never asked his daycare providers how they presented snack and lunch items. She didn’t think presentation was an important detail. However, her two year old could not communicate that information to her, either.

Be an active investigator of your child’s behavior. Why are they crying? Why are they tantruming? Take that closer look and see what the actual problem is, and how you can help solve it. This could also happen in the reverse as well, your child could be crying because you are trying to help them, and they are expressing to you that they don’t want your help!

How to Encourage Your Child Toward Better Behaviors and How To Help Your Child Having a Meltdown

Despite how challenging behavior can sometimes be, try to encourage your child to engage in a more functional and appropriate solution. This gentle approach to parenting creates meaningful relationships between you and your child.

Comfort them when they are upset, but also tell them how they can find solutions to their problems. Encourage the use of functional requests and words or signs that can give them access to things. This approach will increase your child’s communication with you and decrease the amount of negative behaviors that surround those problems when they arise in the future.

If you meet behavior that is persistent, and you need more guidance on how to best help your child and decrease those behaviors, Just Parent would love to help. We specialize in individualized plans to help support both you and your child to take the stress and worry out of behavior so that you can Just Parent. Reach out to us with your questions today!

Hang in there parents and find comfort in knowing that the why behind behavior can offer solutions for both you and your child!

Nicole Williams, M.S. BCBA

Nicole is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Adjunct Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University