Little children use behaviours like crying or running away to communicate with the bigger people in their lives.
Behaviour is all about communication, and it’s our job as adults to learn what children are trying to tell us through their behaviours.
Thinking of children’s behaviours as a form of communication helps us to create environments where children feel safe, understood, secure and supported. We know that in those environments, children learn to interact with others with care, empathy and respect, skills that prepare them for school and life.
How can co-regulation and self-regulation support your child? Co-regulation is you and your child working together to achieve a calm regulated state. Self-regulation is when your child can regulate their behaviour.
Here’s our three top tips for understanding children’s behaviours and how to help them co-regulate.
1. How to interact with your child
We need to understand that crying and other behaviours are children’s ways of communicating with us and asking us for help.
Many of us were brought up in a time when parents would say ‘don’t cry’ or ‘you’re okay’, or ‘they’re just being silly’, and they would dismiss our emotions. So, it can be hard for us to interact with our children differently when that’s what we’ve been taught.
For example, drop off and pick up at preschool can be hard for children, especially when they first start. When you leave your child instead of saying ‘you’re ok’ try saying, ‘I understand you’re sad.’
2. Support your child to build relationships
As humans, we are hardwired to be in relationships with others – children are trying to build relationships with others in their lives, but they may not know the best way to communicate or negotiate.
Some of the behaviours you might see when a child is having difficulty communicating include:
- Crying and yelling
- Hitting, kicking, pushing
- Throwing or breaking things
- Running away
- Blank face – no connection/expression
- Silent sobbing – deep quick breaths
When you see these behaviours, your child is not attention seeking – they are connection seeking. They are telling you they need you, but they don’t have the skills to communicate so they act out instead. It’s our job to decode their behaviours and emotions and support children to develop the skills and strategies they need to self-regulate.
Try taking a moment to consider what’s happening in their environment, what they might have experienced that day, or what they might be asking for. For example, could your child be hungry, tired, or anxious? Could they be sad to leave their friends at the end of the day? In these moments, approach your child calmly and help guide them through explaining to you how they’re feeling.
3. Support positive behaviours
The environments we create at home and in schools are crucial to driving positive behaviours in children. As adults, we can do this by:
- It is okay to let your child release their emotions. Allow your child to release the tears in a supportive environment. It doesn’t matter why they are crying, or where they are crying, or how hard they are crying – it’s okay to just allow it and support it.
- Creating calm, structured, and predictable environments. Example: Create a cosy or calming corner for your child to go to.
- Building a responsive and reciprocal warm relationship with your child is important, to build their trust.
- Developing strategies to assist in hard times – it is important to let children have a say and let them have choices. Co-regulation is a wonderful way to assist your child to understand and regulate their emotions and help you manage challenging situations.
- They have to name it to tame it. Help your child to identify big feelings by labelling your child’s emotions. For example, ‘It seems like that really frustrates you’ or ‘I can see you’re sad when’.
- Breathe together – Calmly take breaths so your child can see you practising self-calming. Or you can hold your child while you breathe deeply so your child can feel the rhythm of breathing.
- Body calming – slowly and rhythmically rub your child’s back or feet. Connecting like this lets them know that you will be there when they are ready to talk.
- Backstories – Tell your child a story while drawing on the top half of your child’s back. For example, draw a circle with rays for the sun. Then switch places and let your child tell a story on your back.
- Music – sing or play relaxing songs. Model how to sing/dance/play an instrument. Your child will learn to use music as an active calming tool.
- Sensory activities – Creating a soothing environment can reduce stress. Try lowering lights and turning off noisy toys.
If you need support in understanding your child’s behaviours and what they’re trying to tell you, reach out to their Educators and Teachers at House on the Hill, who will be able to use their expertise to help you navigate these moments.