Understanding behaviour as a communication of needs

Naturally, as parents we feel the need to not only address these risky behaviours but to do everything in our power to make them stop. Sometimes what can happen instead however, is that our worry and anxiety about the behaviours can come out very strongly. Our focus becomes eradicating the behaviour, rather than trying to understand where this behaviour is coming from and how it may be helping our child cope, even when it is maladaptive. If we don’t understand how the behaviour acts as a coping tool, we run the risk of increasing the behaviour or distancing ourselves from our kids; this is exactly the opposite of what they need from us.


These behaviours are just the “tip of the iceberg” – they are all we see. They tend to be ways that your child is trying to cope with the feelings they are having; underneath there is a larger cause. If we only focus on removing the troubling behaviours, we will miss what is really going on for our kids and even risk bringing about different ways of coping that might be more harmful.

Look at these indicators again and try to see how they may be forms of coping. What might be the feelings underneath?

  • Lying to avoid punishment
  • Not planning ahead, no realistic future goals
  • Putting peer relationships ahead of everything else (underground, gangster-like affiliations)
  • Using cutting, substances, video games and other self-destructive behaviour to avoid and/or soothe
  • Treating adults with disrespect
  • Dependency of any kind
  • Illness, school refusal or truancy
  • Emotional outbursts
  • “Centre-of-the-universe-itis” or narcissism

Some questions to ask yourself:

Do you notice any of these or other key indicators of immature in your teen?

How have you understood these behaviours in the past?

In what other ways could these behaviours be understood?