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What is Behaviour?

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Behaviour… Well! Where do we start with this one?!

what-is-behaviour; behaviour; bad-behaviour

What is ‘Behaviour’?

All behaviour is communication. Separating the child from the behaviour is absolutely essential to understanding the message behind the behaviour. If a child is persistently behaving in a way we do not advocate it’s highly unlikely that the child is simply being persistently disobedient, or not listening, however it is almost certain they’re trying to communicate something to us that we haven’t yet understood.

Children generally understand four emotional states:

  • Mad

  • Bad

  • Sad

  • Glad

The rest are emotions we expect them to learn such as:

  • Guilt

  • Remorse

  • Empathy

  • Sympathy

You’ll notice that mad, bad and sad can all definitely present in exactly the same undesirable way in terms of behaviour; an angry child is as likely to be shouting and crying as a sad child; and a child who is ‘being bad’ is not unlikely to cry or shout either if they think there’s a punishment about to be imposed for their behaviour.

We must also remember that a child’s understanding is directly relative to their age – a four-year-old’s understanding of the world is also only four-years-old, so expecting them to be able to communicate with us on our level is entirely inappropriate. A child isn’t going to approach you and say:

behaviour; what-is-behaviour; bad-behaviour
what-is-behaviour; behaviour; bad-behaviour

Of course they’re not! Most of us couldn’t be that articulate as adults and our vocabulary and experience of the world is as old as we are!

What the child IS going to do is act out – behave undesirably. They’re going to show us through their behaviour that they aren’t coping and require some extra support. It’s up to US to learn to speak THEIR language, not the other way round. If we re-frame the idea of ‘bad’ behaviour away from defiance and wilful disobedience and towards communication of an unmet need, suddenly the persistent behaviour feels much less personal and overwhelming; it becomes purposeful, not purposeless.

Why is managing ‘Behaviour’ so difficult?

We all know how it feels to only have the bad stuff recognised - how often in the world of work have we grumbled that the only time we get spoken to by management is if we’ve done something wrong? They rarely comment on the stuff we’ve done right, do they?! That’s because ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ behaviour is expected. It’s a usual standard, nothing exceptional; it’s ‘Normal’…

Let’s say right now that ‘Normal’ doesn’t necessarily mean correct or right, it just implies usual practice.

Because our conditioning tells us that good (Normal) stuff gets no attention, our children learn VERY quickly that any attention is good attention and therefore if they want us to pay attention, they do something that they know will grab our attention and keep it.

How often, when we’re talking to our children about their ‘behaviour’, do we give them an alternative to that behaviour? Not often… Mostly we tell the child why the behaviour is unacceptable, insist they say, “Sorry” and move on. When the behaviour is repeated, we don’t assume it’s because of the same unmet need that provoked the ‘behaviour’ in the first place, we assume the child is being defiant. In other words, we make the child assume the responsibility for our lack of understanding and empathy.

Behaviour is always the effect of something, never the cause. There are some situations where we accept this as fact – the tired toddler is likely to behave in a way that we can explain – they’re grumpy because they’re tired. But ingrained trigger-response behaviour? That’s a whole other ballgame… What parent is thinking about the impact of the goldfish dying two years ago when they’re dealing with challenging behaviour in the here and now?! That’s right… None!!! (Unless they’re Systemic Therapists, of course, and even then, we all know about the builder with the unfinished house…)

How should we manage ‘Behaviour’?

By being aware of ourselves, mostly! (Self-awareness)

When we’re faced with ‘behaviour’, our impulse as adults is to correct it. Our children, when doing ‘behaviour’, aren’t looking for correction, they’re looking for connection. I talk a lot to parents and staff teams about punitive punishment (If you do, then I will, just because I can) vs positive reinforcement (ignoring the bad and praising the good) and the array of responses is epic! It’s not unusual for at least one person to ask why we’d want to ‘reward bad behaviour’ – and it’s always said EXACTLY like that – rewarding bad behaviour.

This tells me a lot about the adult… They’re not interested in correction OR connection; they’re interested only in COMPLIANCE (Do as I say or else) and this always precedes a conversation about whose needs are being met in this scenario? The adult in question has often never thought of that before and so becomes defensive… And just like that, they’re transported right back to being the child whose needs were unmet so whose behaviour is escalating in the only successful way they know how - defensively.

We might, as adults, have learned to ‘control ourselves’ or behave in a way that is acceptable to the outside world but we ALL bolt back to the safety of ‘familiar’ in times of stress – in other words, when we’re challenged by the job of parenting, we turn into our parents!

When we’re really up against it – when there’s a million things going on already and the child decides that now’s the time to do something completely left-field and ridiculous – that’s when we’ll hear ourselves saying all those things to our kids that our parents said to us and we SWORE we’d NEVER say to them. Things like, “I’ll give you something to cry about” or “Life ain’t fair kid – get used to it!” or my personal favourite, “Make sure you have clean pants on in case you’re hit by a bus”

what-is-behaviour; behaviour; bad-behaviour

Whose job is it?

The difference between adults and children is simple, we believe that it’s our right to challenge children but not adults – adults have choice and free-will after all. An adult can (and often does!) choose to dismiss the therapeutic perspective on the basis that “It never did me any harm!” and heads straight back out the door to continue perpetuating the cycle of compliance, muttering about naval-gazing, soppy emotional excuses instead of ‘Discipline’ or ‘Toughening up because life ain’t fair kid!’

The problem with this is that it’s very black and white thinking… There’s no room for any other perspective – it’s one thing or the other; either they’re complying and everything is good, or they’re misbehaving and that needs punishing out of them.

Mostly, adults understand that life happens in the grey areas, somewhere between perfect all the time and complete chaos. The adult whose inner-child’s needs were unmet though; who learned to cope and function ‘despite’ their upbringing, hasn’t progressed from the coping strategies they learned as a child or adolescent; they worked well enough then – “They’re grumpy because they’re tired” or, “They’re just being an adolescent” – so why not now? It’s a great way of deflecting from the real issue – if, as an adult, you’re labelled as aggressive or challenging you can choose to re-frame those things as positive traits – you can choose to believe that you simply stand up for yourself and won’t take anybody’s rubbish! - only that’s not true. It might feel like that, but the truth is we’re being judged on what other people see, and aggressive and challenging are not likeable qualities in adults or children.

These adults move through life under a cloak of false bravado – they’re likely to be heard saying things like, “If you don’t like it, don’t look!” or “It’s not MY problem people don’t like me!” or “I don’t NEED anybody!” whilst inside, they’re screaming out for somebody to notice their struggles and hurt.

Our children are a fabulous mirror for reflecting our own emotional state. Every parent can recognise that feeling of, “Why today?! Why are you doing this to me now?!” and every parent understands how personal that ‘behaviour’ feels in that moment. The truth is though, that if we stop for a moment and reflect on ourselves, we’ll likely understand that it’s US who is unsettled or anxious, not THEM, and they’re reflecting how WE feel through their ‘behaviour’.

We’re back to that pesky conditioning…. Conditioning tells us, “Not in front of the children!” and whilst this is generally good advice, there’s nothing to say that we have to tell the child nothing! Some truth might help - “I’m grumpy because I’m tired today. I didn’t sleep very well – I don’t mean to be grumpy with you, it’s not your fault.” - can go an awfully long way to settling your child’s undesirable behaviour.

You don’t have to tell them that you struggled to sleep because the mortgage hasn’t been paid this month or you’re concerned about an elderly parent yourself… That’s grown-up stuff. However, the instant impact of removing the potential responsibility from the child’s shoulders is immense! The second they understand that it’s not their fault (and that’s the bit they’re interested in!) they’ll settle. That’s not to say that they’ll be instantly angelic, but they’ll improve, massively!

behaviour; bad-behaviour; what-is-behaviour

Top Tips!

  1. ALL behaviour is communication – poor behaviour usually means there’s an unmet need. It’s our job to speak their language, not the other way around.

  2. Our children’s behaviour often reflects our own mindset – if we’re stressed, they’ll act out. Fact. Being aware of this ‘reflection’ will help us to unpick what the problem really is.

  3. Your view that ‘It never did me any harm’ is probably wrong… If you’re the sort of parent who expects compliance, your own coping strategies should be questioned.

  4. Don’t react, respond. Take a minute, take a deep breath, ask yourself, “What’s my position in this?” and check yourself if you need to.

  5. Think about your language. Being curious about the need behind the behaviour is much more useful to the child than being angry about the behaviour.

bad-behaviour; behaviour; what-is-behaviour

JLTS provides a range of free family therapy services, including parenting support, parenting groups, individual advice and help and advice around understanding behaviour. Please do get in touch to see how we can help you.

JLTS also provides a range of Workshops to teachers and other professionals, including 'Behaviour as Communication' - for more information and to book our workshops please see our Workshops page:


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