Communication Problems Often Masked as Child Behavior Problems

ask questions for better child behaviorIt’s so easy to label something that your child does as “bad behavior”, isn’t it? Sometimes it isn’t what your child does, it’s what they don’t do. You tell your toddler to go do something, he or she refuses and you get mad. You raise your voice, your child cries, and you’re all having wonderful fun, right?

Let me share a little secret with you. Parents almost always forget to ask questions, therefore missing an opportunity to gather important information. Asking a few simple questions to your toddler or young child will often solve problems.

Here’s an example from my own life. My youngest daughter was just shy of her third birthday. We had finished “quiet time” in Mommy and Daddy’s room, watching some cartoon shows together before bed. The kids knew the routine well. 7pm rolls around and it’s bedtime. First we brush teeth, and then we go snuggle together and read books.

When I said, “OK – time to go brush your teeth”, my daughter looked at me and said, “No, I don’t want to brush my teeth”. I began to explain to her that we’d snuggle and read books only after she brushed, but I could see she was already starting to tear up. Something was not normal about this.

I think that in most child/parent scenarios, this would have turned into a tantrum, and nobody would have been happy. But I knew the power of asking questions. So I asked a very simple question. “Sweetie, what is it that you don’t like about brushing your teeth?”

You know what she said to me? I would never have expected this reply. She said, “I don’t like the toothpaste”. She said it with a hint of fear, as if brushing her teeth was an act that forced her to taste something awful. Immediately I remembered that we had just bought the kids a new tube of toothpaste. It was different than what we normally used. Obviously, she didn’t approve – but she hadn’t said anything before this moment.

I put my arm around her and said, “Oh – I understand … you are telling me that you don’t like the toothpaste. That’s ok. We don’t have to use that toothpaste. We can just brush with water tonight. No toothpaste. We can go to the store together and get you a new toothpaste that you’ll like”.

If you are thinking that I’m just a big softie, think again. There is no reason that I feel compelled to force my kid to brush with toothpaste that she hates. If I hated my own toothpaste, I’d throw it away and buy a new brand. Why treat her with any less respect? This isn’t prison.

In the end, she was completely happy to brush her teeth, just not with that particular brand of paste. I got her to bed with no fights, no crying, and plenty of hugs.

The most powerful lessons in life are often very simple. In this case, the lesson is to ask good questions. If your toddler doesn’t want to eat something, ask what it is about it they don’t like. If your child won’t wear a particular piece of clothing that you’re trying to dress him in, ask what he doesn’t like about it. You might just be surprised to find out that the food gets stuck in his teeth, or the shirt has a tag that itches the back of his neck. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.

To discover more powerful language strategies that result in better child behavior, check out my audio course, Talking to Toddlers

SEE ALSO: This audio lesson will forever change the way you interact with your kids

20 Responses to Communication Problems Often Masked as Child Behavior Problems

  1. Toyin Osundiran March 11, 2010 at 7:13 am #

    The Power of communication.
    It is very effective, irrespective of the age.
    I see that everything ended well.
    I will apply such tactics too.

  2. Jana March 11, 2010 at 7:26 am #

    Thanks for your post, Chris! Your tips and insights are always potent and applicable and very appreciated.

    I particular like the part about listening to children, respecting their likes and dislikes and together finding a solution. I think that also really empowers children to be active problem solvers.

    Looking forward to ordering your entire audio series and putting into practice more useful advice.
    Thanks again!

  3. Linda March 11, 2010 at 8:36 am #

    My daughter is 2.5 yo and has begun telling me that she's not good at brushing her teeth and refuses to do it. I have no idea why she thinks this. She gets stickers in her special tooth book every time she brushes her teeth. Any ideas?

  4. Antonio March 11, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    I like this communiction technique and that on your course. But what if more basic strategies fail.
    I work in a school as psychologist and sometimes happens that the boy or girl after hitting or interrupting others are asked for a time out in a corner. Just to calm down and start afresh in six minutes. The big problem is that the child starts to act completely wrong as open the umbrella beside, open de window, dirty the wall, trow the thing next to him, move around not paying attention to your instruction just as a wild animal that you can't stop but using force.
    The principle is not to use force. Do you think that will it be necessry use forcein such a case? Or what else could it be done?
    Thank you.

  5. Chris March 11, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    good tip :)

  6. rony March 11, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    ok but if you asked your question and the answer is mamy i dont like to do it now i want to do anything else what shall you do?

  7. Leilani March 11, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    I always ask my little one “why” and if it is something I can fix or change I do. I have an 18 and a 3 year old, I know how quick they grow up so I am even more patient and a “softie” this time around:) thanks for your tips.

  8. Lim Ai Nee March 11, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    Thank you.That's is a big reminder. We know it ,just we don't practise it often. Hopefully I will practice asking questions n have more quaility time with my kids.
    from Lim Ai Nee, Malaysia.

  9. pratts March 13, 2010 at 3:31 am #

    Our Baby is 3.4 years old… we have put her in PreKg. Daily in the morning, she says I dont want to brush my teeth. We have use ur tactic- why u dont want to brush ur teeth. She says I dont want to go to school. What to do in her case??? Please help…

  10. Chris Thompson March 13, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    I think that at 2 1/2 yrs old, kids should always have their parents do a proper brushing. But then have the kids do some of the brushing either before / after. If your child things she's not good at it she must have picked up the idea somewhere that you need to be “good” at it. Your mission is to change this interpretation. Make it fun. For example, you can get colored tablets for brushing teeth (or mouthwash with dye in it) and then the child needs to scrub the color away. Just an idea.

    But keep in mind – avoid asking “why” the child doesn't want to brush. Instead as “what is it about brushing you don't like”, or something to that effect.

  11. Chris Thompson March 13, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    There are lots of suggestions in my audio course on how to use language to overcome this. My blog post was not meant to be a solution to every problem – just a way to think differently.

  12. Chris Thompson March 13, 2010 at 6:22 pm #

    Thanks a lot for your comment. In addition to “why” questions, remember to ask questions with “what”, or “how” or something other than why. You'll often get more specific information from your kids (or anyone, for that matter) if you avoid asking “why”.

  13. Chris Thompson March 13, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    Sounds to me like you've just discovered that she has connected teeth brushing with going to school, and it sounds like school is the issue. Start by asking more questions about what she likes and dislikes about school. If you ask the right questions, you'll discover a lot of new information.

  14. Antonio March 15, 2010 at 10:57 am #

    It worked with my 9 year old son. At breakfast time, he does not want to drink a small glass of orange juice after asking him to have some. Usually, I insist to do so and finally he drinks some.
    I thought it was a good ocasion to try a double bind. So I asked him: do you want an orange juice of one or two oranges?. His short answer was: of one orange.
    I gave him the glass with approximately the same amount of juice as usually and he drunk it. No more verbal exchanges on the matter.
    It was the first time I did not have to insist.

  15. lor March 16, 2010 at 5:44 am #

    I love it! I totally agree. Tune into your child, ask them questions, listen and respect what they have to say about things. It might seem a small upset to you but to them it can be huge.

  16. miriam March 16, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    Did you ever hear of EFT4kids?
    I started using it in schools where I live-in Israel.
    It teaches the kids to tap at the magic points and calm themselves
    There is an excellant book called “The palace of possibilities”
    Look for it

  17. Chris Thompson March 16, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    I'll second what Miriam suggested. I've used EFT successfully in the past and I have absolutely no doubt that it would be effective in calming kids down when they are misbehaving. They must be willing to do the exercise, which involves tapping on various pressure points on the body (face, chest and fingers).

  18. KateRiJor March 29, 2010 at 6:47 pm #

    I find it hard to avoid leading my 2 year old into an answer because right now he answers mainly with “yeah” or “no” – e.g. Did you have fun at child care today (“yeah”) and if I want details, I have to ask specific questions – e.g. Did you play in the sandpit (“yeah”) and the only way to tell if it's a geniune response is how enthusiatic he is… any tips on how to get him to volunteer the information? He can say the words I think and he definitely understands.

  19. Abimbola Jamgbadi April 16, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    Thanks Chris, This a wonderful strategy, l never thought about.

  20. Abimbola Jamgbadi April 16, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Thanks Chris, This a wonderful strategy, l never thought about.

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