Updated: Sep 2, 2022
Have you ever thought to yourself, I just wish I knew why my child was acting this way? What if we told it was because children have a very specific form of communication? They are actually telling you exactly how they feel in a very inexact way.
Consider this - 90% of communication is not in words. “The 90% figure wasn’t plucked out of thin air. It was Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, who first broke down the components of a face-to-face conversation. He found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only.” (1)
I would venture for children, this formula is actually 90%, 5%, 5%. (This is just my own formula - not a scientifically approved one.) But it is helpful if you think that 90% of what your child is trying to communicate to you they are doing in how they act, not what they say. How beautiful would it be to quickly decode your child's thoughts and feelings by observing their actions - that is the Language of Children.
We as a society LOVE our words - we have a need to put everything into words because then we know what to do, then we can plan, we can react, and most importantly we can problem solve. So it is incredibly frustrating when our children, especially our children with ADHD, don’t use words as their main form of communication and can even behave in ways that are actually counterintuitive to how they are feeling.
When they really need love, they may push us away; when they need to feel safe, they do things that get them in trouble; when they’re really tired they act very hyper; when they’re overstimulated they may be more in our personal space. We as ADHD Super Parents need to learn the language of our specific child - learn to decode the behavior and show up for how they're really feeling - not how they’re behaving. THEN we can begin really learning how to proactively create a safe environment for our children and slowly overtime reduce the circumstances that trigger those behaviors.
There are literally hundreds of articles, blogs, books out there about this very subject - but we will just share three simple truths that will help you to get started on understanding what your child is trying to communicate with you.
Truth #1 - Every behavior is a form of communication.
It’s all telling us something. I feel safe and loved. I feel tired. I feel over stimulated and I want the noise congestion to stop. I haven’t had enough of your undivided attention. I feel unloved. I feel unsafe. I’m really hungry. I am really excited and I don’t know how to funnel ALL THIS ENERGY.
Your number one tool in decoding your child’s behavioral language is OBSERVATION. Think of the ABC’s of Behavior(2):
Antecedent or what happened right before the behavior;
Behavior or what the child is actually doing
The Consequence or what happened right after the behavior. From here you can begin to establish patterns of behavior.
Are there certain things that trigger your child's behavior, OR, is the reaction they’re getting from you or others triggering them to do the behavior. You can read more about the specifics of that here.
As you observe you can ask yourself a few simple questions? (3)
Is this a growth or developmental stage?
Kids start to say NO at a certain age. Detach at a certain age. We need to expect that and allow space for it while still guiding our children.
Is this an individual or temperament difference?
With ADHD the development stages may be different and our child’s personality plays a large part in this. This is part of “Knowing” in the Family P.A.C.K
Is the environment causing the behavior?
My son struggles in large groups - they overwhelm him and he gets very silly. My daughter craves social situations and if she goes too long without them she gets very "antsy".
Knowing this helps me to prepare, be proactive and then react accordingly.
Does the child know what is expected?
This is also part of Knowing and Communication in the Family P.A.C.K.
Is the child expressing unmet emotional needs?
This is the BIG one. The need for attention. Love. Food. Sleep. Space. Praise or validation. What could be missing?
The important thing is that there is always a reason. Please resist saying - my child is acting this way for no reason. The connection between your family will strengthen over time if you remember and honor that.
Truth #2 - It's Not About the Spoon
How many times in our lives have we witnessed our children have epic meltdowns, temper tantrums, crying fits - and when we were finally able to calm them down they said, “I want the pink spoon, not the blue spoon.”
How many times have we responded, “Then that’s all you needed to say.”
But what if we knew it wasn’t about the spoon at all. What if the spoon was just the tangible final result of an intense emotional journey the child just went through, completely unbeknownst to us. What if the child was overly hungry, overly tired, overly stimulated, had a bad day, had just gotten in trouble earlier, felt uncomfortable or out of sorts in the world - and the overwhelm sparked a chemical reaction in their brain that sent them on a mini spiral of unfamiliar emotions. Stressed, scared, frustrated, sorry, guilty, embarrassed, nervous, ashamed - an avalanche of feelings and once they were able to navigate through, the thing they saw on the table was the spoon. They could funnel that emotion into a tangible thing that they knew you could do something about; they took all of that emotion and gave you the words you needed to be able to fix something in the moment.
Its much harder to say - "I don’t understand why I feel so upset right now, why I feel so scared, I feel like I need more attention." It’s easier to say - "I want a pink spoon."
What if we said instead we acknowledged they had very big, very valid emotions; and we held them close, told them we loved them and that it was OK to feel big emotions; that yes, indeed, we can absolutely get them the pink spoon. And then later we can begin asking what was coming up for them. What happened during the day. What emotions they may have been feeling. And we have to be ok with the fact that they may or may not be able to answer any of those questions.
What we’re ultimately teaching our children is that feeling emotions is allowed, that they’re in a safe space and that we love them no matter what. Feeling safe will help our children navigate the big emotions better over time.
While this is a very young child example - the same can apply to teenagers. Often the thing they say is bothering them is a safe cover for the big, confusing emotions bubbling underneath. They are communicating very real, very big emotions even when by cutting all communication. Even just knowing that can shift how we react and give our children the space and the soft landing pad they may need.
Truth #3 - It is not personal / it is not about YOU
They are doing it to communicate something that is affecting them. If you take yourself out of the equation completely - you can observe objectively and you can be there for them safely.
As soon you take it personal, your energy shifts to either defense or offense mode - fight or flight. Once you’re there, it’s impossible to really understand what your child is attempting to communicate. How do you know if you’re taking it personally? If you say things like -
You don’t have the right to talk to me that way.
Why are you treating me this way?
Why do you behave like this only around me?
Why won’t you just do what I ask you ?
I would never have treated my parents this way?
If you hear yourself saying any of those things - give yourself the gift of a break. Take 90 seconds and watch a YouTube video, sing a song, do a little dance - let your own chemical reaction ride through and come back from a place of calm observation. Then see Truth #1 and #2 above.
Often when we take things personally its because it bumps into a limiting belief or a social condition that was put in there from childhood
Good children behave
If my child isn’t behaving then they are not good
If my child is not good, then I am not a good parent
If I am not a good parent... (and so on)
Take a moment and really see if there may be a similar thought pattern happening so quickly, you might not even recognize it. That’s how the subconscious mind works. Also - watch our video on Triggers.
Communication is key to strengthening the connection in your family. If you remember that behavior IS your child's number one form of communication and you take the necessary steps to learn the language of your child or children - you will begin to see enormous positive shifts; and you will be teaching your children important communication skills they will use to form healthy relationships in they're adult lives.
If you read this and thought - WOW - that is exactly what I need - Great! Reach out and let us help you to begin decoding your children’s and your own behavioral language.
If you read this and thought - that either makes no sense or feels too hard - Reach out! We can show you real world examples and simple ways to better understand your child's specific language.