Children often communicate through behaviors, so parents, to be effective, need to look underneath a child’s behavior before responding with disciplinary action. What need does your child have that is not being met? What feeling does your child have that he or she doesn’t know how to handle?

It can be helpful to translate behaviors by trying to figure out how your child would complete the sentences “I need ______” or “I feel _______.” If you can fill in the blank, even with a best guess, then you can respond to the need or feeling rather than the behavior. For example, if your toddler starts grabbing everything off the coffee table, she may be communicating “I need something to do” or “I need someone to play with me.” If a preteen suddenly “forgets” to do his homework, he may be saying, “I’m not sure I’m ready for middle school.”

When children exhibit challenging behaviors, it can be hard for a parent to remember that it is most effective to provide comfort. But, it can be easier to provide comfort if you focus on the underlying need or feeling rather than simply react to the surface behavior. Giving children what they need will do more to change behavior in a positive way than any impulsive punishing can.

Remember to ask the truly important questions: “Is my child unhappy? . . . If so, why? . . . What does he or she need? . . . What is he or she feeling?”

More to consider: The best guess . . .

Sometimes a parent does have to guess about the underlying reason for a child’s difficult behavior. In fact, it is OK to verbalize your guess by “wondering” out loud. You might say to your toddler, “I wonder if you are feeling bored?” Or you might say to your preteen, “I wonder if it feels scary being in middle school?” Kids will usually let you know if you are wrong, and even if you are right and they don’t want to admit it yet, your question still plants seeds of knowledge and insight that helps them figure out what they are feeling and discover the words to express it.