Why Ask Why: Decoding Your Child’s Perplexing Behavior

Often, caregivers get stuck in an endless cycle of correcting our children’s unwanted behavior

… without experiencing any effective long-term change.

Even if we manage to make them comply in the moment, the behavior is simply waiting to emerge again. This reality can leave us feeling exhausted, discouraged, and disconnected from our children.

What if we slightly shift our focus? Can we wonder why our child might behave in a certain way, rather than simply determining a place of right vs. wrong?

If we are honest, at one time or another we have all asked ourselves: Why did I do that?

Why did I say that hurtful thing to my spouse? Why did I react so strongly to my child?

All behavior is communication and ripe with meaning. We can begin to uncover that meaning (the why) if we learn to curiously observe and listen.

Many times, what we see as our child’s failure to behave properly is in fact a failure to communicate their needs properly. If our children speak with their actions, then our question should be, “What are they trying to say?”

Maybe the teenager who raises his voice and slams his door is saying he needs to be heard and respected. Or maybe the child who melts down over a change of plans needs control over something in her life. Maybe the preschoolers who throw toys in frustration need support communicating because they cannot find their words when they get upset or dysregulated.

Every day in a hundred small ways our children ask, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter?’ Their behavior often reflects our response.

The Clue

The clue to help us understand our child’s core need might be hidden behind that unwanted behavior. If we approach the behavior as a need inappropriately expressed then we have taken the first step to supporting long-term growth in our children.

We can get to the why behind the perplexing behavior by stepping back, taking a pause, and looking at the behavior from the child’s perspective with their individual history and personality in mind. Patterns will start to emerge that can lend insight and understanding.

Depending on the child’s age and communication ability we might say:

“I want to help you. Can you tell me with your words what you need?”

“I am here. I see you. And I hear you. Can you tell me how you are feeling?”

“I wonder if when __________ happened you might have been feeling _____ or _____?”

The goal is to embrace the privilege of meeting their needs so we can build a strong foundation of trust and connection.

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.


As the Program Director of Empowered to Connect, Tona Ottinger is committed to equipping parents, professionals, non-profits, churches, and communities with the tools and strategies needed to create safe attachment rich spaces for children and families to thrive. In 2016 she co-founded the Memphis Family Connection Center (MFCC). MFCC is a non-profit that provides holistic attachment centered counseling, occupational therapy, speech therapy, parent mentoring and integrated services to the family as a whole. She and her husband Mark have been married 22 yrs and have 6 children.


Empowered to Connect Conference

April 5-6, 2019 Fort Worth, TX

Mark your calendar for the Empowered to Connect Conference on April 5 and 6, 2019 in Fort Worth, TX. For tickets, register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/empowered-to-connect-conference-2019-fort-worth-tx-tickets-51366383235

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