Seeing Through Behaviors in Children

Working with kids can be so difficult when emotions are elevated. Kids are especially able to “push our buttons” because there is no one in the world that we are more concerned for, or invested in… so the stakes are high and so are our emotions! Whether you have your own kids, watch your family’s kids, or work with kids for your profession, you know first hand how hard it can be to stay calm and collected when the yelling, throwing objects, and name calling starts.


With all children, especially kiddos with traumatic pasts, it’s critical that we (the adults in their lives) *see through their behaviors.* No, this doesn’t mean acting like they are invisible 🙂 Seeing through behaviors is a mindset and fundamental shift in how we make sense of children’s actions. It’s like putting on a pair of futuristic glasses that can help us see someone’s unmet needs from the past. Not only is it a compassionate approach to caring for children, it’s also backed up by scientific research on a psychological term called “attachment.” Attachment is simply the physical and emotional bond that children have with a caretaker.. Here’s a breakdown of what that it all really means:

From infancy to the beginning of adulthood, children are helpless and dependent on the adults in their lives to get their most basic needs met for food, water, shelter, and touch.↴

ALL children are wired to manage (some might call it “manipulate”) their environments in order to get their needs heard and met↴

When a child does not have a healthy attachment or does not get their needs met, they do what it takes to survive: Adapt!

Adapting entails doing any behavior necessary to receive nourishment, affection, and safety↴

To adults, these adaptations may look like violence, disobedience, disrespect, apathy, etc. Yet, they are actually the child’s Survival Strategies

It’s our role, as loving caretakers, parents, teachers, counselors, etc, to observe a behavior and then SEE the NEED behind it↴

Survival Strategies, however unhealthy, can stick with children into adolescence and adulthood. But we have the power to change all that.


Here’s a story about my earliest experience of seeing through behaviors: When I had just graduated from college I worked at an alternative high school. The students at the school were there because they had been kicked out of traditional public schools for failing grades or repeated violent offenses. These were the kids who didn’t care about school and it was my job to help them graduate. Keeping my cool was a challenge every day. One student in particular did a fine job at pushing my emotions to the limit. For the sake of confidentiality I’ll call him Darrell. Darrell would find just the right moments throughout the day to make inappropriate jokes, yell out, and sometimes fight other students.  There were more days than not when I felt so frustrated with him that I would yell, punish, and seclude him from the class.

One day he pushed me to my limit and we sat down together with the Principal. He could hardly look me in the eyes and I felt a similar disdain for him. Finally, I broke and I started tearing up–telling him how maddening his behavior was because of how smart he is. Something changed in that moment. Darrell began to cry as well and expressed how he never intended to make me upset. I was so confused by this. He seemed to be deliberately egging me on each day-making my job miserable at times!

Yet, after that sit-down talk, Darrell’s demeanor in the class dramatically changed and he became my biggest helper. That conversation was a critical shifting point for Darrell, and for me. He saw an adult showing some vulnerability and this gave him the courage show his own vulnerable side. I realized through the experience that his behaviors were an elaborate dance for attention and care. He felt invisible and wanted to feel noticed for once.


“Seeing Through Behaviors” is the most effective way to help children learn healthier modes of relating. And seeing through behaviors is HARD. The easy route is to label a child as “bad” because their behavior is inconvenient. It’s not a technique that we can implement overnight. It’s a messy journey that involves your own Process.


What do I mean by “Process”? … We all arrive at adulthood with our own unique set of luggage, some call it baggage 🙂 . This luggage holds our discomforts, fears, and embarrassments, etc. It’s full of what makes us feel vulnerable (It’s kind of the adult version of what our kiddos are dealing with). The “Process” is your personal journey of unpacking that suitcase and better understanding your needs and vulnerabilities. Being in Process allows us adults to be more mindful of our own behaviors when we are triggered.


In my “Process” with Darrell, I had to identify and build an awareness of my dislike for chaos. Darrell could tell early on that chaos was a trigger for me, even though I didn’t know it myself!


No one is a perfect parent, caretaker, counselor, teacher, etc. But being in the Process is a great gift to children. Not only does it help us respond (instead of react) more compassionately, it also models humility, mindfulness, respect, healthy communication skills, and so much more. Children feel empowered to try healthier survival strategies when they know there is an atmosphere of non-judgement. In this “Process” failure doesn’t just happen, it’s encouraged because it’s how we all grow closer and healthier.

The next time you are seeing challenging behaviors from a child:

1. Take a breath

2. Get in Process-identify how you are being triggered

3. See through the behavior-identify what need has not been met and find a way to help the child meet that need.


Lisa Wilmore, LPC

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