From our childrenís infancy on, as parents we learn about them from their behavior.
When babies cry, or are fussy, we try to figure out if this means they are hungry, tired, need to have a diaper change, or just want to be held. When nothing seems to comfort them, new parents may begin to worry that something is wrong.

As children grow and develop new skills, we depend even more on reading their behavior as a way to understand who they are in order to be effective as parents. When they begin to speak, language adds another way in which they can express themselves. Despite that, young children in particular express their feelings through behavior, rather than words.

Sometimes, what childrenís behavior is saying is not that clear and can be confusing to parents, especially when we donít get the result we expect from our own responses. A good example is when children donít do what parents ask them to do. Or as parents often put it, ďthey donít listen.Ē Parents often say, ďI know she understands what I want, why doesnít she do it?Ē

Children sometimes feel the same way about us. We know what they want, why donít we do it? But we donít always know what they want and when we do, we may not want them to have it. One reason we donít always understand what childrenís behavior is saying is that we donít like the message or the behavior. Not liking the message can also lead to misinterpreting the message. When children ďdonít listenĒ we may attribute that to a fault in the child, labeling him bad or defiant.

Sometimes, misreading behavior is the result of misleading behavior, which can lead parents to worry that something is wrong with the child. A mother consulted me about her 2-and-a half-year-old son after I had observed him in his pre-school group. Her concern was that he wasnít doing what he was supposed to do in class. She wanted him to learn how to behave in school, seeing him as simply not complying with the teacher as other children did.

Observing the child, he was well-related and connected to everything that was going on. His problem was that he was unable to control his body, which was in constant motion. He participated in all the activities while he moved around, helping to put things away when requested, but was unable to sit quietly on the floor like other children.

It was hard for his mother to understand that her son was not defying the teacher by not doing what he was told. Rather, his body was getting away from him and was not under his control, so he was unable to comply in the way that was expected. This did not happen in a one-to-one situation so the nature of the problem had been missed in an earlier individual evaluation.

In this situation, understanding the meaning of the behavior meant seeking the kind of intervention that would help this child begin to master his high activity level. However, most situations that leave parents concerned or upset are due to misreading, rather than to misleading behavior.

The most helpful way to find the meaning of a childís behavior in a given situation is to ask yourself, ďIf he could express his feelings in words, what would he be telling me?Ē
He might be telling you he doesnít like or doesnít want to do what you expect of him. But at least, you now have something to begin to work with, rather than worry about.

ó Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at