Understanding and Connecting with Children’s Behavior


“If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” – Carl G. Jung

The Innocence of Children’s Actions

The reason a child will act unkindly or cause damage is always innocent. Sometimes she is playful and free-spirited, and other times, when aggressive or angry, she is unhappy or confused. The more disturbing the behavior, the more the child is in pain and in need of your love and understanding. In other words, there is no such thing as bad behavior in children. Instead, there is a child who is doing the best she can, and we don’t understand her.

Connecting Kindly with a Child

How do we connect kindly with a child who is hitting, grabbing, or making a mess? In the normal course of events, most of us are looking for a way to “stop” whatever is going wrong. Yet, stopping the child’s expression does not stop the child’s feelings and does not eliminate the cause; it only hurts and confuses the child. Our purpose, therefore, is not to stop the child’s expression (if safe), but to understand why he must be doing it so we can attend to the cause. Even if not safe, stopping her is only a temporary measure, and the cause must be addressed; we must connect and find solutions to her underlying needs.

When a child is screaming or hitting, he must have failed to get his needs met in any other way because we have not responded to his subtler cues. There is no reason to feel guilty for not understanding a child; only to embrace our humanity and move on. We are learning to communicate and listen better so we can understand the child before he is desperate. The following is a formula that will help you transform your habitual reactions into love and understanding:

The SALVE Formula

Raising Our Children is Raising Ourselves

To care for the child, you must rise out of your own old repetitive thoughts planted in your mind long ago. Gaining freedom from the tyranny of old thoughts is the first step of the SALVE formula:

S – Silent Self-Inquiry

Separate yourself from your child’s behavior and emotions with a Silent Self-Inquiry. This is the hardest step; once you can do it, the rest flows easily. Notice that when your child’s action elicits your reaction, your mind puts words into your mouth. It is like a computer running itself: your child does something, and a window opens automatically inside your mind. This would be harmless if you didn’t read what it says out loud or follow it with action. Most often, the first window that opens in your mind’s computer negates your child and will therefore only aggravate the situation. It is not authentic, and you are often out of touch with your love for your child in such moments. The proof of this lack of authenticity is that later you regret your words or actions.

To bring out the loving parent that you are, avoid saying or acting on your first impulse. No need to obey the words your mind recites. Silently read the words on the automatic window and notice how they negate your child’s direction. Notice the words you almost said and let them pass through you freely and without judging them. You may want to let your full expression occur inside your head, including visuals, actions you want to take, or memories from your past. This takes less than a minute and harms no one. Whatever you feel is valid for you only and not a reason for action or utterance. It is an old record and not who you are in the present.

You don’t even believe your own words. Think about it; do you really think your child should not scream, jump, or mess things up? Do you want her to be an adult? Should she really not say ‘no’ when you are trying so hard to teach her to be assertive (and safe)? Wouldn’t your response be more to the point when you understand why your child needs to do what she does? Once you understand what drives her need, you can find productive solutions; with clarity, you may be able to alleviate the need before it arises. For example, if she needs to hurt the baby, you can address her despair and jealousy so that she would not need to do so because she would feel secure in your love.

Notice that when you take your opposing thought as truth, you are stressed out, and you are not the loving parent you wish to be. Without the thought, you may actually realize how your child is taking care of herself the best way she can and be able to assist her. If you are open to learn, you may even discover that your judgment of her is really perfect for your own learning. “She shouldn’t push the baby” may be useful to you as “I shouldn’t push my child beyond her age and emotional limitations.” This doesn’t mean she can hit or break things. On the contrary, knowing that she would, you now know how to prevent the settings that promote these difficulties and how to meet her emotional needs so she is content.

When you are finished becoming friends with your own thoughts and realizing what is actually valid and what isn’t, you can close the window on your inner imaginary “computer” and delete the “document;” it won’t vanish, but it will let you be present with your child for the time being. Another day you may have to inquire again. Over time, that particular thought will loosen up its grip on you, and you will be able to act in greater freedom and peace.

A – Attention on Your Child

Shift your attention from your reaction to your child and observe what is real for her. Be on her side and do your best to find why she needs to do what she does.

L – Listen

Listen to what your child is saying or to what his actions may be indicating; then listen some more. Make eye contact with the child and ask caring questions that would provide him with an opportunity to cry and pour his heart out, or if non-verbal, to know that you understand.

V – Validate

Validate your child’s feelings and the needs he expresses without adding or dramatizing. Listening and Validating are the ingredients of love. (LV). In this way, you create a connection with your child, and you feel present and authentic with yourself.

E – Empower

Empower your child to resolve his own upset by getting out of his way and trusting him. Show confidence in his resourcefulness by not getting all wound up and by not rushing to fix everything. Children come up with their own requests, solutions, and ideas when feeling able, trusted, and free of parental expectations or emotions. Feelings get in the way of the ability to act powerfully. Once expressed, the child regains his freedom and focus, and will either let go of the need or come up with solutions.

Practical Example: Clint and Joy

Nine-year-old Clint was crying because his sister Joy wouldn’t finish playing Monopoly with him. “I want to finish the game, I was so close to winning,” he cried. Ella, their mother, was ready to force “justice,” but she took time to (S of SALVE) Separate her personal reaction from her children’s dispute and run her own Self-talk, Silently in her mind. She imagined herself scolding Joy, calling her inconsiderate and unkind, and ordering her to finish the game. Then she examined the thoughts in her head and was clear that they were not the truth; her daughter was not unkind at all, and her ability to assert herself was a good thing. She (Ella) would have been unkind to scold her.

Ella was then able to let the thought be and move on to giving (A) Attention to Clint and (L) Listening to him. “So you were very excited because you had a chance to win. Are you feeling disappointed that you didn’t get to finish the game?”I am mad. I want to finish the game,” Clint insisted.“I hear that you want to finish the game and Joy won’t play.”I was so close to winning and that’s why she stopped.” Clint said.

Ella kept Validating and listening without changing reality for Clint. She empowered him by not getting involved in fixing his reality; as though she was saying, “I hear you and I know you can handle it.”

After a while, he was done and started a different conversation.

Clint was heard. He felt connected to his mother, who validated his feelings and repeated the facts based on his perception. She did not add drama; she did not mix in her own emotions or opinions. Her trust and consistent presence made it possible for Clint to move on.

Children and Emotional Words

Talking about feeling sad, upset, or disappointed may or may not be grasped by your child. Instead, children feel most validated when facts are acknowledged. In a phone session, a mother told me about an experience with her daughter at the pool.

Orna (5) came out of the swimming pool crying desperately because she wanted to stay longer. The swimming pool was closed for the day. Her mother, Donna, dressed her to get out of the building. As she was dressing her crying child, she validated her experience by stating what was so: “You love to play in the water. Did you want to play much longer?” Orna responded with, “Yes, I want to jump more”. Donna continued, “I know, you didn’t want to get out of the water yet, and we were told to leave.” Orna stopped crying and said: “I love the pool.” “Yes,” said Mum, “and you don’t like to be taken out of the pool.” “Mum,” responded a calm Orna, “I am not sad anymore, I want to go home.”

Donna only described the facts, and Orna could easily relate and feel content. On their own, children do not cling to painful emotions. They move on powerfully because they don’t have a load of history around each feeling. Avoid teaching them the adult art of “wallowing in one’s misery.” Adults sometimes dwell on their upset to generate guilt in another person or blame the culture or circumstances. I am sure you don’t want to teach such skills to your child. Validate, yet expect her to move on; expect her not to take her emotions too seriously and learn from her. Emotions are a form of discharge, just like sweat and bowel movement. Emotions need to be acknowledged so they don’t get in the way, just like sweat has to be washed off. Once the child’s need for understanding is met, she will move on.

Validation is not a trick of control. It does not intend to fall back on our first impulse to stop the child’s expression. If you need to stop your child from doing harm, do so, but follow up with addressing the feelings and needs that prompt her behavior. Your validation will not stop the emotional expression. The child, who discovers that you cherish her emotions, will let it all out in freedom. Be there for her for the full duration. She can go through it and come clear on the other side, and you can do the same for yourself.