Differentiating Between Children and Their Behaviors

Feb 3, 2011

I believe it is so crucial to keep in mind that your child is more than their behaviors. It is easy to latch on to consistent patterns and generalize them into a schema under which you categorize them. Unfortunately, this is detrimental to their exploration and growth and limits your capacity to encourage their development. Let me share a few thoughts and examples.

I have written a previous article about the power (and therefore danger) of labeling children. However, in this article I would like to focus less on the name assigned, and more on the effect of said name. When I was in my Master’s program taking a Psychopathology course, I vividly remember us discussing case studies of individuals with certain diagnoses and disorders. As we referenced the individuals, we would say, “the depressed woman” or “the alcoholic man”. My professor stressed that we were to always refer to the person first and the issue second. So, we were trained to say, “the woman who is depressed” or “the man who is an alcoholic”. Notice that the former focuses on the problem and the latter the person.

As much as that has stayed with me in the way that I talk about people, it strikes me how often parents do not realize that they focus on the problems rather than their children. It is very common when parents discuss their concerns with me for them to say, “he is a rebellious child” or “she is a very picky eater”. It seems like a small distinction to change it to, “he is a child who can be rebellious” or “she is a child who tends to be picky about what she eats”, but the implications are huge. Children are more than their behaviors!

The self-fulfilling prophecy principle mirrors the idea that what we say about children matters. I reference the Pygmalion effect , wherein what others reinforce about who you are develops into character traits. So, when a child is told that she is a good friend, she internalizes that into her self-concept. It creates a personality that she continues. Likewise, a child who hears that she is “bad” believes that she is and continues acting in a manner to reinforce the belief.

I always tell people that children listen to what we say – even we think they are not paying attention, they watch our non-verbals so they know what we think when we don’t say anything at all, and they are far more intuitive and understand much more than for which we give them credit. Therefore, it is imperative that we speak about our children and react to their behaviors in positive words, actions, and beliefs. It is far too easy to get caught up in the pattern of behavior that frustrates us and begin to think of kids in that light and that light only. In other words, a child who expresses emotions outwardly on a regular basis becomes “moody” or “drama king/queen” in our mind’s eye. Then, if we do not reframe that opinion to “in touch with their feelings”, we maintain an internal negative reference that trickles down to our children.

This is a concept that must be acknowledged and adjusted over time. It is not a “quick fix” type of issue. Many of the tools that I share are changes that occur slowly and with practice. This will be a daily commitment to thinking first of the child, then the behavior; first the negative, then the positive. When it comes to personalities (children included), there is a choice that we make about our interpretation of those behaviors. We can choose to see “hyperactive” or “spirited”. We can choose “lazy” or “selective”. We can see “aggressive” or “passionate”. No trait is exclusively negative, and with appropriate guidance and opportunities, any child can use their unique characteristics in productive ways. If they believe that we see the best in them and focus on the child before the issue, they will see those things in themselves. Therein, it becomes a win-win for everyone!