Understanding Behaviour As Communication

As parents, careers, family members, or teachers, whatever your role in a young person's life, we need to understand that kids communicate through their behaviour.

From a baby, they communicate by crying, and then the type of cry can tell us even more:

  • they're hungry
  • need a nappy change
  • are in pain
  • or just want a cuddle or snuggle

Even at this young age, they're communicating through their facial expressions (along with the tone of cry), and we eventually get to learn what their cry means.

That cry, though is their only form of communication.

As our babies grow into toddlers and young children, they continue to communicate through their behaviour. Perhaps you've noticed that when your young child is tired, they'll rub their eyes? Or if they're unhappy, they'll throw something (hopefully not their bowl of spaghetti 😉, but we've all been there at some stage, haven't we?).

What is non-verbal communication?

Let's start at the beginning and the fact that all communication is through our behaviour. Whether that be:

  • body language
  • posture
  • facial expressions
  • eye gaze or movement
  • our appearance
  • gestures
  • tone of voice, including volume and pitch
  • touch aka haptics
  • personal space

All of the above is a form of nonverbal communication.

Quite often, we're not aware that we're communicating something. But a glance at our watch can communicate that we're in a hurry or the other person needs to hurry up. Depending on the situation, a yawn can indicate we're tired or perhaps even bored.

Have you noticed, since COVID-19 and face masks have become the norm in society, just how many non-verbal facial cues, in particular, we take from others?

Understanding the links between communication and behaviour

It's important to understand the connection between communication and behaviour as it's a very close association. Negative or anti-social behaviour can actually be caused due to a communication problem going undetected. To mask the communication problem, the child acts out instead.

Some very common communication problems that often go undetected are:

  • understanding – the child doesn't understand what others are saying to them or what they're asking them to do
  • working memory – if a child has multiple tasks fired at them one after the other, it's overwhelming, and they're not going to understand or remember what they need to do
  • regulation – kids can't find the words to express how they're feeling
  • socially – they don't know how to interact and perhaps don't understand jokes and how to communicate 1:1 or within a group of their peers.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, it might be worth speaking with your young person's teacher, GP or psychologist if they have one, as early intervention can make all the difference.

How does behaviour or feelings affect communication?

Behaviour and feelings play a significant role in communication. Quite often, even when an adult feels angry, we can't communicate as effectively as we can when calm and collected.

Put yourself in a young person's situation or a neurodiverse person whose brain is wired differently and has so many other superpowers to deal with.

It's going to be hard!

The same applies if a young person is behaving angrily or destructively, it can be difficult for others to communicate with them.

A great piece of advice we can offer is to be aware of how we're feeling and behaving when trying to communicate with others. That way, everyone can have the best possible experience.

And if you can instil this in your child from a young age, they're going to grow up being so much more aware of their behaviour and actions and how they can affect others too.

What is your child's behaviour trying to communicate?

Don't forget your child's behaviour is trying to tell you something. I know it can be frustrating. and it takes practice to not just react to their behaviour and write it off as bad behaviour, particularly if it's negative behaviour.

But if you can take a breath and look at the nonverbal behaviour itself - what is your child or young person trying to tell you through their nonverbal cues?

  • do they want attention? – want to be looked at, hugged or praised, so they feel like they belong or are accepted
  • are they trying to escape? –to avoid a task or the situation they're in
  • do they want something tangible? –specific objects or activities – food, money, toys, games, etc
  • are they sensory? – self -stimulation like hand flapping, hair twirling, use of fidget toys

All of these behaviours are ways your young person is trying to communicate with you.

What are some hacks to solve children's behaviour?

  1. First and foremost, a great way to help improve a child's behaviour is to set a good example ourselves. Children pick up on so much, and it's incredible how well they can hear when it's not necessarily something you want them to. So, be aware of what you're saying even if you "think" you're out of earshot of them.
  1. Talk about your feelings. Open and honest communication can go a long way.

  2. Tell or show your child how their behaviour makes you feel and affects you. This can be a big turning point for some. I know someone who was having problems with their son during the first lockdown with self-regulation. And the young child, who was 6 at the time, had really started lashing out to the point of throwing things and biting others. It was only when he saw his mum break down in tears that it would snap him out of the fit of rage he was in. This was good, though, as it showed he was empathetic to others and recognised emotions in others.

  3. Praise good behaviour. Focus on the positives.

  4. Speak to your child at their level. You may have seen Kate Middleton and Prince William do this if you're a Royal fan. By getting down to their level it's less overwhelming and aggressive.

  5. Be an active listener and repeat back what you think you've heard to ensure you have indeed heard correctly.

  6. Keep promises. Please don't say you're going to do something or promise you'll do something if you're not 100% sure that you'll be able to do it. A young person needs to know they can trust what you say and do.

  7. Try and keep a sense of humour. I know this can be easier said than done. But bringing in humour or fun can help diffuse a situation successfully. Just ensure it's not at your child's expense, as that generally doesn't go down well at all and has the opposite effect.

How do you respond to challenging behaviour in children?

The best way is to stay calm and, as we said above, try and inject some humour into the situation. Distraction can work wonders depending on where you are and the situation at hand. I remember when my eldest son was little and was overwhelmed, I would always ask him maths equations to calm him down as that was his special interest - it seems crazy, but it worked at the time!

But it's really going to come down to your young person and what works for them as every child is different.

Don't forget we're here to help support you. We're a neurodiverse family, so if we don't have personal experience,we probably know someone that does or the best place to get professional advice. So, come see us at our Altona North oasis or reach out online if you're not lucky enough to be local to us.

Jody x

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