Behavior is Communication

child on swing

Sometimes my kids come home from school with a story about a “bad” kid and how that kid was misbehaving in class. I try to teach them to be more open-minded and talk about scenarios that that child might be dealing with on a personal level that prompted them to act the way they do. Behavior is communication. Positive or negative behaviors are an attempt to get needs met. We all have bad days and have done things we wish we hadn’t. It doesn’t mean that we deserve a label that typifies our behavior.

Think about your own bad behavior. It usually stems from stress, lack of sleep, being hungry or feeling like you don’t have control over something that you want control of. Sometimes we act out and do and say things that affect others because of our own internal battles. What we hope for is that someone can see past our behaviors and give us what we need: reassurance, a hug, or even food! Children are not much different from us in this respect. Any kind of behavior, good or bad is communication of what they need. An angry child at school may be disregulated, triggered by a traumatic memory, hungry or scared. But what the teacher and students see is varying degrees of unacceptable behaviors.

Parents see the same behaviors at home. How much different would a parent’s reaction be if they can see past a negative behavior and see what the child is trying to communicate, possibly without  the child even understanding what he needs. I challenge you to look at your child’s behavior and see what is causing it; more often than not it is the base emotion of fear that can be triggered from emotional or physical needs that are not met or do not feel controlled. If you understand that your child is scared when she is throwing things or saying hurtful things, it is much easier to respond with empathy and love instead of escalating with your own need to gain control and be respected.

I should make the point here that parents have their own fear-based behaviors when they react to a child’s negative behaviors by being louder or stronger in an attempt to stay in control because they fear not being in control or losing respect. Brad Reedy in his book, The Journey of the Heroic Parent made a profound statement that has always stuck with me. He pointed out that parents who yell are communicating to their children that they need the child to help them calm down and get their needs met—usually this means the child’s compliance. It is hard work, but parents have to try to be okay with not having control in the midst of a child’s behaviors in order to focus on the child’s needs. Doing this will communicate to the child that they are safe with you, and you will always love them and try to meet their needs.



Forbes, H.T. (2012). Help for Billy. Beyond Consequences Institute, Boulder, CO.

Reedy, M. (2015). The Journey of the Heroic Parent. Regan Arts, New York NY


Love and Fear



Many psychologists and therapists believe that there are only two primal emotions: love and fear. Love keeps us connected, fear separates us. Positive emotions and behaviors come out of love, negative emotions and behaviors have their root in the fear the person is feeling.


What if we can recognize a behavior as stemming from love or fear in our child and in ourselves? How would that change our relationship? For most of us it would drastically change our relationships!


When our mind perceives that there is danger or something to be feared, we respond with emotions and actions to deal with the threat whether it is real or simply perceived. Any negative behavior is driven from fear. Explosive behaviors such as anger, aggression, defiance all stem from fear. Withdrawing behaviors like sadness and depression have their root in fear. Children with trauma in their pasts attempt to regulate their fears of terrible memories with behaviors like stealing, hoarding, lying and phobias.

love v fear
from Calming your Angry Mind by J Brantley


To make matters worse, when we as parents are confronted with negative behaviors, we react with our own fears- “this child is out of control”, “I need to get control of this situation”, “I will not be disrespected”- that have their roots in our own traumas, misgivings, and memories. Too often, a child’s negative behaviors are met by parental negative behaviors and they escalate each other instead of the parent being able to parent effectively and help the child regulate.


If we as parents can see past the behaviors and see that the behavior is driven by fear, it changes everything. It opens our mind to respond with love and empathy to try to address the child’s fear. Once we can see the fear in the behavior, we stop the feedback loop of escalating negative behaviors. When a parent can stay calm and loving when confronting a child’s fear, it is a scientific fact that the calmer person can help the other person calm. We are such interconnected beings, which is why the natural tendency is to respond to negative behaviors with negative behaviors. Our mirror neurons pick up on the emotional signals of the other person and reciprocate. It is just as true that positive behaviors are reciprocated by positive behaviors. Parents can stop the cycle and chose to stay connected by choosing to respond in love instead of fear. Stop, take a slow deep breath and say to yourself, “I am afraid”. Bring awareness to what you are feeling and then look at the child and see that he is afraid too.  Choice connections is about choosing behaviors that will keep us connected to our children. Choose love.



Brantley, J. (2014). Calming your Angry Mind. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA


Forbes, H.T. & Post, B (2012). Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control. Beyond Consequences Institute, Boulder, CO.