Behavior is Communication

Behavior is communication.  That’s a maxim more recently held among many parents of autistic spectrum kids. It’s certainly true with my Aspie son.  His behavior is my best indicator of internal milieu.  While my younger son is verbally precocious and his output, um, prolific, it’s his behavior that tells me what’s really going on.  When I see him chewing his shirt or blanket, I know he’s needing to soothe himself.  That behavior isn’t random, and it isn’t there to drive me nuts.  It may appear to be both of those things, but it’s not.  It’s communication and coping mechanism wrapped into one.  Holes and soggy clothing aside, it’s not a terribly problematic behavior, and he’s glad to substitute a piece of gum when asked.

Some behaviors are less clear.  Breakdowns during lessons require more detective work and rarely related to the assigned work.  When he becomes teary during a page of math problems, fatigue and anxiety are often to blame.  The anxiety may be about an upcoming flu shot, global warming, or his birthday.  Even fun stuff causes anxiety, since it also entails change. But his behavior for all is pretty much the same — teariness for assignments he generally manages well and resistance to all demands.  In the last year, thanks to growth, good therapy, and low-dose medication, with prompting he’s often able to identify the problem and work through.   We didn’t have this a year ago, but not just because he was struggling to express himself.

I wasn’t listening as well then.  I was listening for words, words in response to, “What’s wrong?”  I was watching for body language that matched his words, and the match wasn’t there.  I wasn’t considering the behaviors themselves to be communication.  Oh, I knew that certain behaviors meant he was distressed.  But the tantrums and all tended to overwhelm me, making it hard for me to really listen to what his behavior was saying.  I saw the meltdown, the chewing, the foot tapping, and I just felt frustrated.  Frustrated that I didn’t know what was wrong.  Frustrated at the behavior, which was often loud and large. Frustrated at the interruption in our lives, which occurred nearly every day.

When I can remember that behavior is communication, I can respond initially to what is being communicated, not to the behavior.  No, I don’t tolerate violent acts to people or property.  And yes, behavior does have consequences.  But we do the best around here when I listen to what he’s really communicating.  When I recognize the anxiety, fear, anger, or sorrow behind the behavior, I can respond to that. When he identifies the emotions behind his behavior (which often takes help), he’s more likely to shift away from more problematic behaviors.    Also, there are some behaviors best let be.  I’m delighted my son has found ways to calm himself, even if one of those ways is chewing his shirts to pieces.  He spent more than half of his life without any of those independent mechanisms, requiring me to soothe him.  I still do help him out, cuddling or just being near when needed, but finding ways to manage that oneself is a task of growing up.

Behavior is communication.  This holds true for my older son.  At fourteen, he has plenty of ability to express his feelings, but, whether due to gender, age, or temperament, he often doesn’t say much.  He speaks volumes when he retreats to his room to read –again.  Even missed assignments and failed tests give me information as to his state of mind and mood.  It’s harder for me to see his behavior as communication, perhaps because, in general, he communicates his feelings in words more readily than his brother.  But his behavior towards his academic work or music studies are a window into his heart and mind, one that as a mom to a teen, I’m glad to have available.  As with my younger, I try to verify my understanding of a behavior.  Did he not finish work because it was too hard, because he was bored, or because he has bigger matters on his mind?  This isn’t an out to assignments he doesn’t want to do — life requires us to do plenty that we’d rather avoid.  (My examples to my boys include cleaning toilets, cooking meals each day, and showing up for work on time.)

It’s far too easy to jump on the behavior — the tantrum, the late or sloppy work, the retreat to a room — rather than to examine the communication behind the behavior.  It takes a fair amount of self-restraint to block the initial (often negative) reaction to the behavior and think for a moment and ask aloud what’s going on. It takes some patience to help a child sort through their hearts and minds, but it’s worth it.

The more I try to see behavior as communication, the less conflict we have around here.  It decreases my yelling and their whining.  And, to my delight, it increases their ability to identify and share their feelings before they wash over into their behavior.  That makes for a more peaceful home, which we all appreciate.

Secret:  This works with adults, too, but adults tend to be more guarded about their emotions and have stronger ego-defenses.  Strong reactions and grownup tantrums are rarely about anyone but the one having the snit. At least remembering that can help you de-escalate and keep your own behavior in check.


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