How Do I Know If My Child’s Behavior is Normal?

A parent sometimes feels anxious, wanting to trust that their child is healthy and happy. That their child understands their world and is making choices to get their needs met. Just as we sometimes struggle with self-awareness, so do children. Babies are born with the ability to understand they are a distinct object in their environment. * They continue to explore their environment and how they exist within it as they develop. By the second year children can exhibit embarrassment when looking in a mirror. This signifies their understanding and fear that others may not see them as they see themselves. This is the demonstration that they are learning the belief that another’s response to them is not about the other person, but about themselves. This is the misunderstanding we all have. Marshall Rosenberg teaches that another’s response to us is all about the other person’s needs and feelings. But if children don’t learn that, they will start to develop thoughts and beliefs about themselves based on the mistaken belief that someone else’s responses to them are about them. Marshall Rosenberg refers to this as being educated in the modern world.

Understanding that your child’s behavior is not only developmentally unique, but that is it an expression of their feelings and needs is helpful in determining your response. Also understanding that your response as a parent is totally about yourself, is paramount. Take a moment to let this settle in; it is fundamental. Your response to your child’s behavior is entirely about you, not them.

The American Academy of Pediatrics describes three types of behaviors you see in your child: approved behavior, tolerable behavior and non-tolerable behavior. Examples of approved behavior include doing homework, being ‘polite’, and doing chores. These behaviors fit what we think a child should do. Notice there is no mention of what kinds of feelings and needs are underlying these behaviors. A child could be doing any of these, and at the same time be feeling angry, anxious or sad; all feelings related to unmet needs. What is more important than the behavior is the feeling or energy related to it. When we focus on the behaviors, and not the feelings and needs, we are teaching children that it’s more important to do what other’s want you to do than to express your own needs and try to get them met. So when we observe approved behavior, we are meaning it is behavior that is meeting our own needs. It may be our need for ease (they are doing their homework without my prompting) or trust (they know how to act in the world, they will be alright), but it is our need being met.

The second behavior is tolerable behavior. As you can see this means the behavior is tolerable to us. Our needs may not be met completely, but they are met enough. Again, the behavior isn’t telling us what is going on for our child. What are the feelings and needs they are having in that moment.

With intolerable behavior we feel compelled to do something. We are feeling embarrassment, anxious, angry, some sort of feeling that is telling us our needs aren’t being met. Do you see a pattern here? Evaluating our child’s behavior is actually telling us more about ourselves than our children. If the behavior is actually something that is endangering the child or someone else, Marshall Rosenberg describes using protective use of force. In this situation, we don’t take the time to find out feelings and needs, we step in to stop things. For instance, if your child is running out into oncoming traffic, you will use physical force to stop that child and keep him safe.

Otherwise, the most helpful response for all would be for the parent to talk with the child and figure out what they are feeling and needing. It is also the time to explain to your child how you are feeling and what you need. Then you both can start to work on how both of your needs can be met. By doing this you are modeling that every person’s needs are important and there is a way to figure out how to get everyone’s needs met. It’s a practice that will get easier with time. The parent is also responsible for understanding the developmental level of a child, and if the parent’s needs can be met by the child.

For example, if parents are having difficulties at work, they aren’t getting their needs for appreciation and value met in the workplace, they may be “short-tempered” at home. The angry feeling follows them home. They need to be clear about what is stimulating that anger in themselves, and know it isn’t a child’s responsibility to make them feel better. Bottom line though, you as a parent are doing the best you can in every moment. This is a constant practice, and you have time to figure things out. But it is something you do with your child, not to your child. Normal behavior is a social construct. What you really want is a child that can identify their own needs and figure out ways to get those met that aren’t harmful to themselves or others.

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