Tips to Help Decode a Child’s Behavior

Understand Normal Behavioral Development

Even experienced parents often forget the normal physical, emotional/social and intellectual milestones of children at different ages. Information included in the Child Development Section of this Handbook provides a quick reference.

Uncover the Child’s History

Talk to the child’s child welfare specialist about the child’s behavior. Ask about the child’s history. Understanding where a child came from and his or her reactions and behavior in that environment can provide clues regarding the current behavior.

Provide a Predictable Home Environment

A safe, nurturing and predictable home environment is what every child needs. This goes a long way to help any child overcome fear, anxiety, loss, grief and other emotional trauma. Predictability will also help the child to understand the “cause and effect” of his or her own behavior – “when I do this, I can expect that to happen.” This is particularly important for children who come from homes where parenting was inconsistent and consequences of their behavior were unpredictable.

Understand Your Reactions to Problem Behavior

We all have a tendency to think a child’s misbehavior in our presence is directed at us. We take it personally. We get angry and we get locked into this emotional power struggle, which frustrates everyone involved.

Many children often act out angrily because, in their previous environment, acting out angrily is the only behavior that got a consistent response. When they were being good and fairly well-behaved, they were ignored. Once a resource parent realizes the child is not out to make them angry – it’s just the child’s attempt to create some “cause and effect” – the resource parent can stop reacting emotionally.

Identify What Triggers Problem Behavior

There is always a reason for problem behavior. Usually the reasons can be identified by a good observer. When a child displays problem behavior, think about what was happening before the behavior took place. Look for a pattern. For example, a resource parent may see destructive behavior following visits or phone calls from the child’s relatives. The child may always react to going to school, or they may react at bedtime. Sometimes, the triggers occur just before the bad behavior happens. Other times, the trigger may be more remote, like the day or week before. Being a good observer can help a resource parent make a good guess about the trigger to the bad behavior.

Bring Trigger Events to the Child’s Attention – Listen to Explanations

Remember, not every trigger to behavior is readily observable. For example, a child may be emotional after hearing a song on the radio that evokes a memory. This type of trigger is very difficult to spot and usually can only be identified when the child talks about it. When things calm down after an outburst, ask the child what triggered the behavior. A question such as “What were you thinking right before you got angry?” may allow the child to connect his or her feelings with the behavior and give the resource parent helpful information. Discuss the connection of feelings and behavior with the child. Point out what was observed in regards to what triggered the unacceptable behavior and ask the child to help find a solution.

Example: “I’ve noticed that when I say to you that it’s bedtime, you usually seem to get upset. What can we do together to help you when it’s time for bed?” By asking the child why bedtime is difficult, a resource parent is obtaining information that may help solve the problem. In this example, it could be as simple as the child being afraid of the dark. Providing a night-light for the child’s room could be the solution to the problem.

By bringing these observations to the child’s attention, a resource parent may help the child understand the cause and effect of his or her behavior. The resource parent also demonstrates their willingness and ability to help the child.

Try Not to Label a Child’s Behavior

It is easy to slip into the habit of using labels to describe a child. For example, a resource parent may think a child is depressed and communicate that to a therapist. The term depressed has different meanings to different people. It is more helpful if a resource parent observes the child’s behavior and describes it to the child welfare specialist or therapist.

Example: Saying, “Darryl seems withdrawn and very shy. He stays in his room for most of the day and he doesn’t have a good appetite. He acts sad and doesn’t want to play with other kids,” will be more helpful than saying “Darryl is depressed.”

Log Behavior to Help Pinpoint the Problem

Keeping a log of what has been observed in regards to a child’s behavior may help identify what triggers the problem. Over time, record the circumstances under which the child’s problem behavior occurs. A behavioral log will help the resource parent and the therapist or counselor separate behavior ordinarily associated with the trauma of abuse, neglect and out-of-home care from behavior indicative of severe emotional disturbance.

A log is also helpful in measuring progress. If a child starts by acting out 15 times a day, and through logging the events, the resource parent notices the behavior has dropped to five times a day, then good progress is clearly being made. This specific information is also much more helpful to a therapist than commenting “He does this all day long!”

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