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Opinion & Essays - Sept, 2000 Issue #73 


By Lon Woodbury, Educational Consultant

This confused and exasperated expression is frequently uttered by parents in reaction to what appears to be an outrageously stupid thing that their teen has just done. Actually, it’s a very good question that should not be taken lightly. Seriously considering the implications of this question can lead to important insights into what might be going on in a teen’s head (or anyone else’s head for that matter).

Basically, ideas have consequences, and ideas drive behavior. Some reflection and keen observation of what a child does can provide good clues as to what he/she is thinking. For example, many teens on some level think of themselves as immortal, causing them to carelessly do risky things. Likewise, I’ve noticed I tend to be more cautious about driving as I get older and have learned I was not immune to accidents. In the event a that child is obvious about negative behavior like smelling of drugs or alcohol when he/she comes home, or is stealing money in a situation where getting caught is highly likely, this might suggest a total lack of the concept of consequences. Perhaps they are giving the message: “please stop me before I hurt myself or somebody else,” or maybe they just have an arrogance that adults are dumb, dumb, dumb! Whatever it means, that behavior, no matter how apparently insignificant, can be a window into their thoughts. In another example, flunking school because of not turning in homework might indicate a negative self-image; a belief that it’s better to set up failure than to try and still fail. Or it may indicate boredom with school, no concept of cause and effect, or it may indicate chronic depression. Deciding the implications of a specific behavior does require prudence, to avoid misinterpretation or over-reaction. Looking for clues in a child’s behavior requires one to work like the police detective who collects all kinds of little insignificant details until the “whodunit” is solved.

The parent or professional who observes details in a child’s behavior, and thinks about what each might mean, can gain insights into the child’s thought processes that no battery of psychological tests can ever duplicate. That information can provide vital insights in order to define the problem, and a correct definition of a problem is half the answer as to what kind of intervention is appropriate. It is the parent who is the best person to put that behavior into its full context, because the parent is the only person who has known the child all his or her life.

Interpreting the behavior of a child requires good observation skills. More importantly, it requires the skill of self- reflection. Of even more significance is the attitude that nothing is insignificant!

True, a startled expression on a child’s face when asked what they think of marijuana does not necessarily prove the child is smoking marijuana. But it might mean he/she is afraid you have found out, or simply a concern on their part that you have found out one of their best friends is smoking it! My point is that it probably means something, and that observation should at least be tucked away in the back of your mind for future reference.

It is very common to simply dismiss or overlook reactions in our children when we don’t have a ready explanation for a specific behavior, or to interpret something only in the light of what we think we already know. Either can be a mistake. Reminding ourselves to observe details about your child, and to reflect on what might be the ideas behind those details, based on what we might be thinking if we were to react that way, is the basis of people-watching. For many parents it can add a whole new dimension to their efforts to understand a teen. The concept that ideas drive behavior is especially important for parents to remember, and can provide a way to counterbalance a culture that continuously tries to tell us that “The expert knows best.” In truth, the parent usually has the best handle on their child, if they will remember to apply their own life experience to their children the same way they apply it to co-workers and social contacts.

By the way, this skill is one of the important reasons emotional growth schools and programs are successful; they hire staff who are skilled in “reading” a child from clues that range from how the child carries him or herself, to the interpretation of specific behaviors. There is no good reason parents can’t do this themselves.

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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