You might think I’m crazy, but I love when my little person gives me that certain look from across the room. You might recognize that look, the one that your kid gives you while they do the exact thing that you just asked them not to do. They stare right at you, while their little hand reaches for the electrical outlet, phone charging cord, glass ornament on the tree, whatever you just asked them not to touch.
My 1-year-old has just started to shoot me this look. The other day he locked eyes with me while he nonchalantly began leaning on our ottoman. In his left hand, he held up the distractor toy and babbled something adorable in his language. Probably something along the lines of my mom is such a sucker for this baby babble, while his right hand inched closer and closer to my work phone in the middle of the ottoman. Once he secured that, he tossed the toy he’d been pretending to play with and raised the phone to his mouth, stopping just a few centimeters from his tongue. I lunged for the phone, but false alarm. He didn’t actually put it in his mouth, he just wanted to see what my reaction would be today. Would it be the same as yesterday? How close do I have to put it to my mouth to get that same hilarious reaction from my crazy mom? If I actually put it in my mouth will today be the day that she finally waves the white flag and lets me use it as a teething toy? Maybe I can try again when my dad gets home and see if they’re really a united front. I could see the wheels spinning.
That’s the fun part for me though. Sure, some days more than others, it’s frustrating and tiring and tries my patience, but I know that it’s healthy, typical and that he’s developing in all the right ways. I know that he’s learning cause and effect and how his little body can impact our home and it’s fascinating to me. I also know that right now sometimes “misbehaving” is the way he can communicate with us or make sense of his environment.
I work in the mental health field, so I get to experience human behavior every day all day. We joke in our house, because my husband works in mental health as well, that we’ll have the toddler walking around asking everyone, “how does that make you feel?” But in all seriousness, I think my professional experience gives me a unique parenting perspective.
One of the most significant takeaways from my everyday work is this: we all communicate through our behaviors. As adults, even though we have words to use, we also use nonverbal communication. Our facial expressions, hand gestures, our behaviors all help us get our point across. And, I think, as parents, we have to remember this when it comes to our kids. We have to catch ourselves when we automatically assume that our children are behaving a certain way just to spite us. I have to remind myself that my 1-year-old is not out to get me, he’s not trying to purposefully ruin my day. He’s ONE, he’s tired, he wants my attention, maybe he doesn’t feel well, perhaps another tooth is coming in, he’s most likely hungry again, or maybe he’s thirsty, have I even given him a drink today?! He’s curious, he’s interested in everything I’m doing, he’s learning, he’s making connections in his environment. There are so many other reasons for my child’s “bad” behavior, it is truly the way that he can communicate anything right now.
I do everyone in our house a disservice when I automatically assume that the meltdown at the restaurant is purposeful behavior selected just to embarrass me. Instead, when I’m able to pause and remember that my child is probably biting, or dumping toys, or crying, or doing the exact thing I just asked him not to do because he’s trying to communicate something to me or because he’s learning about his environment, I usually learn something. I’m able to teach, to listen, to connect with my child. I’m ready to get down on his level and help him understand why it might NOT be the best idea to snack on the Christmas tree. Those darn Christmas trees are just so interesting!
Now I’m not saying it’s ok for a middle school-aged child to throw a tantrum. As communication develops, we have the obligation as parents to teach our kids how to appropriately communicate needs. At any age, though we can take a step back, look at the larger picture, and try to understand why a toddler, a 2nd grader, or a middle school-aged child is behaving the way they are behaving. We can ask, what needs are they trying to communicate?
So, as challenging as it might be, as crazy as it might sound, I’m excited about this next toddler stage and for him to “misbehave.” I’m excited to see his personality develop, to watch him begin to learn about the impact that he has on his world, and to learn from him!
Can you remember a time you were frustrated with your child’s behavior? Silly question right! What do you think they were trying to communicate or make sense of now that you think back to that situation?