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Behavior is Communication: What Your Child is Trying to Tell You

Katie Malinski


Children don’t always have the skills or ability to use words to describe what is going on in their brain or body.  Sometimes they don’t know, other times they just don’t have the words.  Even if it’s true, you’re not likely to find a 4 year old saying “Excuse me Mommy, but the sugar from that candy plus the nap I missed are really making it hard for me to sit down and stop shrieking.”   Know what I mean?

On the other hand, their behavior itself is a fantastic clue about what’s going on.  When a child is behaving in some inappropriate way, ask yourself what that behavior would tell you if you looked at it as though it was a message spoken in a foreign language.  Translate it, and see what your child is saying.  Here are a few examples:

What your child is doing: Hiding behind your legs when meeting someone new.

 What it means/what they need: I’m feeling uncomfortable and a little scared.  I need to be reassured and some gentle physical touch would help a lot.  Do my talking for me so I can watch and warm up at my own speed.

 What your child is doing: Coming to you, interrupting what you are doing with endless questions when you know they already know the answer.

 What it means/what they need: I need more of your attention.  I want you to stop what you are doing for at least a moment to play with me, talk to me, ask me how I am or what is up with me.

 What your child is doing: Running in to the street/away from you.

 What it means/what they need: I can’t handle being in charge of my body right now.  I need you to hold my hand, or take me somewhere safer, or carry me, etc.

 What your child is doing: Hitting their sibling.

What it means/what they need:  (This is a tough one—it can mean many different things, but here’s a most likely suspect:)  I am feeling such strong feelings that I can’t seem to control them appropriately.  I need your help managing myself and making safe choices.

 What your child is doing: Being defiant, talking back!

What it means/what they need: This one is tough, because it can mean a LOT of different things.  Here’s a typical translation for young children: “I am really angry/upset right now—maybe with you about what you are saying, or maybe about something unrelated to you.”  Either way, I need you to stay calm, acknowledge my strong feelings, and help me practice expressing my feelings in appropriate ways.

There are many, many different messages that our children’s behaviors can be sending, but the need for more attention, more support, more reassurance, and more limits are very common ones for the younger kids.  Stay tuned for how to translate your teenager’s behaviors next!

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Katie Malinski

Katie Malinski LCSW is a licensed child and family therapist and parenting coach. In addition to her one-on-one work with families and children, she presents dynamic parenting workshops on a variety of topics, including: Beyond Birds and Bees, Parenting Through Divorce, Typical Parenting Conflicts, and many more. Learn more about Katie at