‘Children’s Behavior Is a Communication’

How we can give our children both love and limits


Ana Rodriguez-Betancourt is a child-parent psychotherapist in New Jersey. We reached out to her because our children had gone through difficult experiences, from bullying, to witnessing domestic violence, to foster care. Our children also had been given diagnoses, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

We wanted to better understand what was behind some of our children’s emotional and behavior struggles. We also wanted to know how to show them that we cared about their feelings while setting limits when their behavior wasn’t OK. Here’s how Rodriguez-Betancourt broke it down.

Q: How do you know what experiences are traumatic to a child?

A: There are a lot of traumas that can impact kids: Losing a parent or any loved one through separation, death or incarceration; witnessing domestic violence; physical or sexual abuse, and others. There are also psychosocial stressors, like living in poverty and worrying about when you’re going to eat, that can have a cumulative effect. The more children have these kinds of experiences, the more likely they are to be impacted.

Different children can be impacted in different ways by the same experience. One child may seem OK on the outside, but feel more depressed. Another might act out and show anger.

There are also protective factors that help reduce the impact of these experiences.

Some kids just kind of bounce back. That’s the idea of resilience.

What their relationship is like with you, their teachers and their community can also be protective. And some of resilience is about whether your child gets help to process the experience.

I work with a lot of families impacted by domestic violence. Often the concern for parents is: “My child who’s hitting me and saying abusive things seems like my abuser.” There’s that fear of who he’s going to become.

It’s possible that he’ll grow up to repeat the abusive behavior, but it doesn’t have to be what happens. Some of that is about whether your child gets help so he can relate in a different way and process the impact that experience had on him.

Q: How do you know if your child’s behaviors are because of trauma, or a different mental health issue like ADHD, or just your child’s personality? How do you know whether your child needs professional help?

A: It’s tricky because with diagnoses like ADHD and trauma, there’s a lot of overlap. ADHD has to do with problems with concentration, kids who can’t sit still, or they’re sitting still in class but they’re not focused.

Some trauma reactions also include having trouble concentrating. Children may be preoccupied with whether they’re in danger. If they’re in class and they’re not feeling safe, that takes away from their ability to concentrate. So kids may get mislabeled.

Before your child is given a diagnosis, you want to make sure that they’ve had a full assessment. That’s something you participate in.

There’s a lot involved in doing a full assessment, including finding out when certain reactions started, whether a child’s behavior is happening in more than one setting, and how long the reactions have been going on.

Therapists also take a psychosocial history to get a full picture. That means we want to know about how a child is meeting his milestones, what his temperament is like, how he’s doing academically and socially, and whether there are any conflicts, like the child is being bullied.

We’ll ask about possible traumas, even things like whether your child was ever bitten by an animal or had a serious medical condition. We try to put together a timeline and match that with your child’s behavior.

We want to be careful not to assume that everything is a problem. But we also don’t want to overlook problems. Part of deciding whether a child needs help is assessing how much dysfunction the reaction is causing in your relationship or in your child’s ability to socialize with others or do well academically.

It can be hard for parents to accept that a child might need professional help. Parents may need to peel back their own layers and ask themselves, “What would it mean to me if my child has this diagnosis, or this need?” It can bring up guilt, like maybe we’ve failed our child, or we can feel like it’s a reflection of ourselves.

Q: When our children are acting out, whether or not they have a diagnosis, how do we know when they need discipline and when they need understanding?

A: I think it’s helpful to start with the idea that children’s behavior is a communication. If you start with that idea, then your first response might be to ask yourself: How do I figure out what they’re responding to? Maybe they act out in difficult moments, or during transitions, or in response to limit setting. It’s like detective work.

Your child may need help talking about his feelings. If your child doesn’t want to talk, often it’s enough just to let your child know that you understand what he may be feeling.

But even if you start with the idea that your child is misbehaving because your child is hurt, that doesn’t mean you’re going to allow the misbehavior. Parents need to own their power. There are times when it’s important to say, “It’s not OK to act like that,” or, “This is not the way we treat each other.”

How we express that, though, is really about asking ourselves what values we want to teach our children. For instance, when you’re recovering from domestic violence, you might have to say: “I know you’ve seen dad hurt me in that way, but that’s wrong. That’s why we’re not together anymore.”  

It’s also about asking ourselves what skills our children need to manage their emotions. You and your child may need to agree on proactive strategies that you figure out ahead of time for how to deal with strong feelings when they come up.

There’s also not just one way to target a problem and sometimes finding positive outlets for your child can make the biggest difference. Art can be one outlet for strong emotions. So can doing something physical, like running or basketball. Just being a part of something positive can help with self-esteem.

The more you can find pleasurable moments to be with your children, doing something that feels enjoyable and is a way of connecting, the better.

Q: How do you manage your own emotions as a parent?

A: Parenting is really hard and beautiful and messy and it brings out our insecurities, especially because it’s usually not only kids who have gone through things, but us, too.

At the same time, self-care can feel like just another thing that we don’t have time for, which is why it’s important to make it as simple as possible.

The first step is really just self-awareness. What are my different reactions? How do I know when I’m stressed out? What are the physical reactions in my body?

Step two is creating a plan of how to take care of you—and then simplifying it. It can be as simple as deciding things like, What do I want to eat that’s going to take care of me? What do I need in moments when I’m feeling stressed, like to take a deep breath or a time out? If you’re spiritual or religious, you might want to take a few minutes to pray or meditate. You can also ask yourself whether you can find time to do activities that you enjoy.

One of the things that can happen around trauma is that we isolate ourselves. So the third part of the plan is how we reconnect with others. Do you have a place where you feel safe to say, “I had a really hard day.”

You don’t have to have a large support network. It can be anyone, a safe family member, a friend, or even a therapist.

Self-care is like when the flight attendant tells you, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” The question is how you incorporate self-care in a very simple, consistent way, because you taking care of yourself is essential to you taking care of your kids.

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