She did what?! : Discovering the meaning behind behavior
All behavior has meaning. All of it. For your child every action and reaction has meaning. From a giant unprompted hug to a full-blown tantrum and everything in-between. Behavior is about getting needs met. Period. Perhaps at first glance this seems too simple, but consider the following:
We are all just trying to meet our deepest yearnings. Virginia Satir noted that we all have universal yearnings. Each person, regardless of race, gender, age, or religion has them. These universal yearnings include things like: love, safety, creativity, freedom, acceptance, and significance. Yearnings are deep down in our selves and sometimes we might not even be aware that they exist. However, regardless of whether we can identify them or not they drive our behavior and actions. Yearnings are a powerful motivator and our need to have them met can make us very “creative” in our behaviors and thoughts.
Our children are no different. Every behavior is a child’s attempt to meet his or her universal needs. Sometimes the WAY a child is trying to get his/her needs met is not working, but the INTENTION is always about meeting needs.
What would change in the way your experienced your child if you were able to look beyond his/her behavior? And instead simply remain curious about the yearning that was trying to be meet? What if all his/her behavior was merely a clue about what she/he needs? How would your parenting change if you became curious about your child’s yearning and stopped focusing on solely behavior management? What if you could help your child identify his/her yearning and then redirect them to a more appropriate way of meeting that need?
When my 8-year-old daughter reacts strongly to a boundary I have set, I am faced with a choice. Do I yell back, barking out demands and doling out long-winded lectures about her responsibilities and the need for respect? … Honestly? … Sometimes, yes I do, and rarely do I get the response I would like… BUT when I remember to remain curious about what need she is trying to meet, I can approach her with much more openness. In the moments that I remember that she has yearning she is trying to meet our interactions look quite different. Within this approach I am able to not take her actions so personally and instead I can interact with deeper compassion and curiosity. From this more open place I have a greater opportunity to meet her where she is at and connect with her yearnings, the same yearnings that I have because we are both human. Truthfully, I have a greater opportunity to gain her genuine willingness to comply with the set boundary when I remember our common humanity and add in some compassion for her feelings. Do children need limits and rules? Of course! Will they always respond well to when we enforce them? No. But keeping the rules without loosing sight of our children as little humans figuring out how to meet his/her needs is vital.
Sometimes I realize that my daughter’s reaction to my rule or request is because I have asked her for obedience before connecting with her. Sometimes her need for belonging and love are not being fully met and her reaction tells me so.
Has that every happened to you? Maybe with a boss who could care less about you as a person, but dishes out orders and demands that you jump to action immediately? How do you want to respond to him/her? Perhaps like my daughter responds to me sometimes? Stomping off and loudly proclaiming how unfair things are? Now, naturally, as an adult you likely have greater impulse control, but the yearning is likely similar. Can you name it? Is it a yearning for significance, or freedom, or belonging? We are more likely to respond well to a boss who sees us as more than just a nameless drone. It's the same way with children, except the stakes are much higher than they are with a boss.
Attachment between parents and children is deeply important. It is the foundation on which all other relationships are built. It is the first and most lasting imprint about how our children see themselves and their world. Our ability to connect with our own children is also often connected to our experiences with our own parents.
So what gets in the way? Allow me to offer a few suggestions, and perhaps you can think of some that I have not mentioned. One of the common things that can get in the way is our own unmet yearnings. When a parent has unmet yearning the behavior of our children sometimes steps on our deep down yearnings for respect, or love or another yearning. Sometimes these little people, who we love more than life itself, point out our own areas for growth and change.
Perhaps sometimes we may get over focused on behavior compliance and miss the yearnings. This misplaced emphasis can take over without even realizing it has happened and our child’s internal needs get overlooked.
Or we may have some unfinished business about our own childhood experiences that still needs to be untangled. This unfinished business can have a significant impact on our availability to meet our child in his/her yearnings.
For just a moment let take this beyond our youngest family members. What if we are all just trying to get our yearnings met? How would this change the way you experience the behavior of your spouse? Friend? Coworker? How would your own understanding of how you act change if you saw yourself through the lens of trying to get your yearning met?
You may have noticed I ask a lot of questions! I can’t help it. It’s my genuine curiosity about life, about people, and about relationships. I hope I have made you consider behavior in a new way and left you with more questions than answers. Curiosity about your yearnings and the yearnings of those around you is a gift. Open it, you may be surprised by what you discover.
Loraine Klassen MFT, RCC