Aha! Parenting Blog

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7 questions to help you decode your child's SOS and respond

"All communication is either an SOS or a care package." -- Kelly Bryson

You’ve probably heard the term “Acting out’ refer to misbehaving.  It actually means to act out a need or feeling that you can't express in words.

So when your three year old hits the baby, or your five year old throws a toy at you, or your seven year old slams the door, they’re acting out. You could respond with punishment.  After all, the behavior is clearly unacceptable.  But you would be missing the feeling that your child is finding so unbearable that he has to act it out. You would be missing your child’s SOS.


Should you overlook the “bad” behavior?  Of course not.  Move in to keep everyone safe. (In a perfect world, of course, you would do this BEFORE the SOS behavior. But families are made of humans, who by definition aren't perfect. That's ok; Love serves us better than Perfect every time.)

As you set the limit--calmly and kindly--remind yourself that there’s a reason for your child’s behavior.  It may not be what you consider a good reason, but it’s her reason. 

Then, address the need or feeling that’s motivating her behavior. That gives her the help she needs to cooperate with you. If you don't address the need, you don't get to the source of the behavior.

Want some examples of decoding an SOS?

  • Children who are always cranky and uncooperative usually need more sleep, more connection, a physical ailment addressed, or a safe opportunity to cry in a parent’s arms.
  • Children who compete with siblings often need to feel more connected to parents, more "seen" and valued for who they are. (Remember, sibling rivalry comes from a competition for scarce resources -- your love and delight in the child. Each one needs to feel that you could never love anyone else more.)
  • Children who "don't listen" have usually been trained not to take us seriously unless we yell; they're asking us to calm down and connect.
  • Children who lash out aggressively are carrying unbearable fear inside. They need to laugh (when they aren't angry) to begin to melt the fear, and then, when they feel safe enough, to experience that fear in your presence. This will look like a tantrum, but will be followed by tears and then affection and cooperation.
  • Children who are always rebelling usually need to feel more powerful, competent, and respected. They need us to listen and let them know we hear, even when we don't agree.
  • Children who disrespect us are showing that they don't feel enough connection, warmth and respect from us. Often, disrespect is a result of parents yelling and indulging in their own tantrums.
  • Children who lie to us feel afraid. What in your response is making your child feel so unsafe that she needs to lie to you?
  • Children who keep pushing the limits usually need to know the parent is in charge and will keep them (and everyone else) safe -- while still loving them. You show them this by setting limits clearly and firmly -- but with empathy and understanding. Here's your formula. In a warm voice: "You wanted X, so you did Y behavior.....I understand. And Y behavior is not okay. because it hurts (a person or thing.) You can do Z instead."

Will your child be able to explain his needs if you ask? No, that's why he acts them out!  But here are 7 questions to ask yourself, that will help you decode, meet the need, and change the behavior.

1. What is the behavior that bothers you most from your child? That behavior is an SOS. 

2. What’s the first thing that pops into your head about what’s behind this SOS from your child?  (What need or feeling might your child be acting out? Connection? Autonomy? Sleep? Less criticism or control from Dad? More one on one time with Mom?)

3. What actions could you take to answer your child’s SOS? Make a list.

4. Notice how your own fear gets in the way of meeting your child's needs. (For instance, if he's suddenly talking baby talk, do you feel a need to correct him, or can you accept his temporary need to be babied and give him what he needs?) Breathe into that fear and let it go. Once we meet the child's needs, the child can move on. When we deny needs, the child stays stuck.

5. Make a plan to take at least one of the actions on your list, every day for a week. (It might be the same action over and over.)

6. Notice your child's behavior change. What have you learned about his or her needs?  

7. What will you do differently in the future?


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