One of the biggest challenges parents and caregivers face is responding effectively to the challenging behaviour of children. These behaviours can be confusing at times and it can be difficult to figure out what is going on. How do you know whether a child is just being defiant of authority when there are so many other things that might be going on? Sometimes children don’t understand their own emotions and behaviour. Sometimes they experience discomfort, but don’t know how to express themselves. Sometimes their basic physical or psychological needs are unmet. And sometimes they respond to tension in their environment. One thing we know is that the behaviour of children is the tip of the iceberg. As an iceberg floats in the ocean, we know that the part we can observe is only a tiny part of a much bigger chuck of ice – most of it concealed below the surface.
We can use this as a metaphor to understand the behaviour of children. The part that we can see is the observable, outward behaviour of a child – the things they say and do. This is a small part of what is going on.
Most of the action happens below the surface – the parts we cannot observe directly. This include their physical feelings, emotions, thoughts, developing belief system and values and basic needs. The behaviour that we observe is the outward expression of what is happening on the inside.
Understand the behaviour of children therefore requires us to look beyond the behaviour and understand what lies beneath. Responding to the behaviour of children requires responding to their emotions, thoughts and basic needs. When we respond only to the outward behaviour, we miss the mark and we are often unsuccessful in our efforts.
We accept that all behaviour is purposeful and therefore an attempt to meet some internal need. A common approach of parents and caregivers is to try and control the behaviour of children through external means – creating and enforcing rules. When rules are broken, efforts are made to correct the behaviour so that it will comply with the rules. This approach often misses the underlying dynamics and causes of behaviour and when it fails, efforts are increased and escalated in order to bring things under control. Of course, the more effort is made to control behaviour when behaviour is just an outward expression of inner turmoil, the more inner turmoil is created and the more the behaviour escalates, creating a vicious cycle of conflict and control. Responding effectively to challenging behaviour therefore requires responding to the needs beyond the behaviour.
Children are not miniature adults and their behaviour must be understood within the context of their developing minds and bodies. Younger children do not have the verbal and cognitive skills to explain their inner experiences; they communicate differently. Counselling for children is therefore a specialised and adapted process that helps children to express their inner experiences without necessarily having to talk about them. Since play is the language of children, play therapy is often used with younger children to help them heal from trauma. Other common approaches include creative therapies, such as art therapy, sandtray therapy and working with puppets or therapeutic story telling.
Sometimes it is easiest to help children when the parents and caregivers receive counselling and guidance on how to provide help. The real change happens in the 23 hours when the child is not in counselling, so it makes sense to optimise the time that parents and caregivers spend with children. Sometimes making small changes in a child’s routine or how discipline is handles can make a big difference. Many parents and caregivers are hesitant to enter counselling on behalf of their children, because they think it will mean that they failed in their caregiving task; of course, the opposite is true. It is a rather courageous action to take to seek help on behalf of a child; in fact, it is a responsibility. As adults, we have the resources to reach out to help when we need it, but children do not.