Facts for Living: Understanding your child’s behavior

By Rebecca McFarland, Frontier Extension Agent

041714-babyChildren’s behavior has meaning and many adults don’t understand what the meaning is. In the early years, before children have developed strong language skills, it can be especially hard to understand what a baby or toddler is trying to communicate.

Babies and toddlers might just be learning to talk, but they have many other ways to tell their parents and caregivers how they are feeling. Children can experience the same emotions their parents and other caregivers do, but they express those feelings differently, with their behavior.

Crying is the first form of communication for infants. It is a baby’s way of trying to tell you something. Your baby’s cry can mean, “I’m tired,” “I don’t know how to calm myself down,” “I’m in pain or discomfort,” or “I want the toy you just picked up.”

Babies will gradually begin to use gestures and sounds to communicate. Speaking of gestures, you may be familiar with the practice of teaching babies sign language as a way of bridging the communication gap between babies and their parents. My two younger sisters taught their children to sign at an early age, and I was amazed at how quickly their children were able to learn it. Teaching babies to sign at an early age enables the baby to express needs and thoughts, and it reduces the frustration and number of tantrums due to communication barriers.

Right around a year of age, babies will say his or her first word. While at first your child’s language skills will seem to grow slowly, right around the two-year mark they will really take off.

Facial expressions are another way a baby communicates. The meaning of a smile is easy to understand, but with time, parents and caregivers will also get to know the baby’s questioning or curious face, along with expressions of frustration, pleasure, excitement, boredom, and more.

Babies use their bodies in many ways to communicate. They reach for people and objects, pick objects up, wave their arms and hands and kick their feet.

Over time, it becomes easier to understand your child’s cues and messages. When you see a behavior you don’t understand, think about these “clues” to try to figure out what the behavior means for your child.

Step 1: Observe and interpret your child’s behavior. Notice the sounds, facial expressions, gestures and movements. Think about what’s going on when you see a behavior you don’t understand. Does this behavior occur at a certain time of day? Does this behavior tend to happen in a certain place?

Step 2: Respond to your baby or toddler based on what you think the meaning of his or her behavior is. It’s okay if you are not sure if your guess is right, just try something. When you respond to your child, say out loud what you think his behavior might be. By using language to describe what the child is communicating, you will be teaching your child he meaning of words.

Step 3: If your first try didn’t work, try again. Trying different techniques increases the changes that you will figure out the meaning of your child’s behavior, understand his needs, and validate his feelings.

Step 4: Remember that tantrums are communication, too. A tantrum usually means that your child is not able to calm herself down. For adults, it is easy to get upset when you see upsetting behavior. But what frequently happens is that when you get really upset, your child’s tantrum gets even bigger. Although it can be difficult, when you are able to stay calm during these intense moments, it often helps your child calm down, too.

Remember you can’t always understand what your child is trying to communicate. Being able to stay calm, make a good guess at what the behavior might mean, and then respond helps children understand that they are powerful communicators. Over the long-term, this helps children learn how to connect with others in ways that are healthy and respectful – a skill they will use for life.


McFarland_RebeccaRebecca McFarland is the Frontier Extension District family and consumer sciences agent. For more information, she can be contacted at the Extension district’s Ottawa office, 1418 S. Main, Suite 2, Ottawa, KS 66067, or call 785-229-3520, or email [email protected].


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