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Parent Hack: 3 Steps to Understanding Your Child's Behavior for a Win-Win

Behavior is a funny thing. It provides a deeper understanding into what our child is experiencing. At the same time, it can flood our nervous systems, activating the impulse to fight, flight or freeze. At the end of the day, it’s all just behavior. 

I can type this article with ease, as I comfortably write to you from my quiet office, hearing birds chirp outside, and the subtle whoosh from my heat kicking on. However, if my daughter was melting because her socks “didn't feel right” and/or my other daughter was screaming because her little sister simply entered her room, the tone of this article may sound different. What this means is that how our children’s behavior directly impacts our nervous system, which influences how we perform simple and complex tasks, from washing dishes to parenting. 

The more we know about our internal response to behavior, the more intentional we are able to be with our approach. The ability to decode, or understand, behavior is incredibly valuable for ourselves and our children. Not so that we can change our children’s behavior, but we can understand ourselves and model what feels good.

So let’s take a minute to get curious about understanding behavior. 

Avoiding the Luscious Low Hanging Fruit

In my past, I was a School Psychologist, where part of my role was to conduct Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs). This is an assessment of a child’s behavior that includes numerous observations, interviews, and rating scales that end up compiled into a long report, hypothesizing the potential causes of the behavior, as well as recommended strategies. Sounds lovely, right? For some, it can give guidance, but when I look back at these reports, I see words like, “defiance,” “non-compliant,” “aggressive,” “attention seeking” and “avoidance.” Then I remember sitting across from the parent, their eyes glossing over, attempting to protect their heart as they hear the results. My gut drops. To some degree, these words aren’t wrong, but they are grasping at low hanging fruit. It is much easier to quantify defiance, than understand the hurt behind the behavior.

Let’s Dig Deeper

My forthcoming example can be applied to people. Anyone and everyone. No matter the age. So when you read the following and say to yourself, “Well, my child is five and neurotypical,” or “My child is fifteen with ADHD,” just consider how these events could emerge for them. 

Lucy is a ten year old, fourth grade student. She is the oldest of three children. She loves piano and playing with her friends. Lucy also loves animals. Recently, Lucy has been complaining of stomach problems. All medical symptoms have been ruled out, but her complaints persist. At home, Lucy can become impulsive when things don’t go as she hoped. When this happens she presents as aggressive, hitting, pinching and kicking her siblings. When confronted by her parents, she becomes defiant, “No, I will not go to another room.” 

We can imagine this as a three year old or fifteen year old. And the words defiant and aggressive seem to describe the behavior, but they give us little information on how to help the child. These labels often lead to punishment, which may correct the behavior in the moment, but does not have long-term benefits (meaning the behavior will persist). So let’s picture this narrative in a different way. 

Lucy is a ten year old, fourth grade student. She is the oldest of three children……. Lucy feels the pressure of being the oldest. She wants to get things right, and when she doesn’t, she feels a sense of failure. Lucy wants to help her sisters, but when they say “no,” she feels rejected and hurt. She then proceeds to lash out, which angers her parents, leaving her feeling more alone. She doesn’t know how to break this cycle. Her perception that others don’t want to be around her leaves her feeling a loss of belonging. These are thoughts and feelings she doesn’t know how to express. She’s stuck. 

How do you feel about Lucy now? Is there empathy? Perhaps sadness or compassion? Maybe you’re annoyed and feel the need to tell her to “suck it up?” If so, that may be a message you heard as a child. Regardless, maybe her behavior no longer triggers the desire to suit up and prepare for a battle. Hmmm. Getting curious?

When we look to understand the behavior, another part of the narrative is uncovered, which allows us to actually formulate a plan to support our children. At the same time, having this knowledge may reduce the thought that our child is out to get us and/or their siblings. This messages to our system that we are okay and do not need to activate our defenses. This often sounds like, “What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that? Go to your room!”

3 Steps for Understanding Your Child’s Behavior

Okay, here are three steps to consider when decoding your child’s behavior. There could be more, but let’s not overwhelm ourselves:

  1. Pick one behavior.

  2. Then observe: When, where, and with whom is this behavior occurring? Think about people, places, and time of day.

  3. Consider: When does the behavior not happen?

Before you create a hypothesis, just marinate on these questions. 

We often seek to “solve” the hypothesis overlooking that understanding their behavior and our response is the tool. Period. It has the power to change the trajectory of a potentially explosive situation to a moment where we can foster the relationship we want with our children and within ourselves. 

Want to learn more about understanding your child's behavior, come join expert psychologist and parent educator, Holly Moore MS, Eds, NCSP, for a free, in-person parent workshop on Feb 22nd in Charleston. Space is limited so be sure to register soon!


Holly Moore, MS, Eds, NCSP

Holly is a school psychologist, mental health provider and certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator. For more information about Holly, and her parent coaching or upcoming parent workshops, visit her website at That's the Mom in Me or email her at



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