We had just left Target.
Three kids in tow, a basket full of items even though I swore I was only going for toothpaste and bread. We had made it through our whole trip almost unscathed. No tantrums in the aisles, no begging for toys. And we even had made it past the dreaded dollar spot.
We got to the car, unpacked, I got all of my kids into the car except for one.
“Come on buddy, hop in.” And with that, he let out a screeching, ear piercing, “No,” that I’m quite sure was heard into the next town.
The next thing I remember, I’m sprawled out on the Target parking lot ground asphalt.
My child wailing in between my legs.
And all I can do is hold him and wait. In the past something like this might have made me mad.
In the past, I might have gotten frustrated with my son, demanded he get in the car “right this instant”.
But I knew that wasn’t gonna work.
So instead, I sat there and waited.
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I pushed past the stares, I pushed past the feeling of being judged by others passing by and I pushed past the deep churning feeling in my gut that made me feel like I was failing my son.
And I focused on three powerful words.
I haven’t always been able to remain this calm while my child is head butting me, biting me, and screaming unimaginable things at me. All while strangers are passing by with their carts full of things that they didn’t intend to buy.
Staring and thinking… (only God knows what they’re thinking).
I’m pretty sure this won’t be my last meltdown either.
But ever since I armed myself with these three powerful words, the meltdowns are shorter. They happen less often and with much less intensity.
Sometimes, I even think that I should get these three words tattooed on my forearm, just so that I remember every time one of my children starts to melt down, have a tantrum, or throw a fit about the apples being cut wrong.
While I haven’t gone to the lengths of tattooing it on my forearm, I do put this phrase on repeat, over and over and over again in my brain.
Behavior is communication.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Behavior is not spiteful.
Behavior is not mean.
Behavior is not disrespectful.
At it’s very core, behavior is communication.
So how do those three words actually help me while my child is beating his head against my chest and leaving bruises? Simple.
I repeat, behavior is communication.
His behavior is trying to tell me something.
He is lacking the words to tell me.
He is lacking the logical ability to tell me and he is lacking the self regulation skills to tell himself. He is trying to communicate through his behavior.
In fact, it’s almost as if he’s trapped inside of his body trying to scream, “Help, help, help.” This very moment his brain has disengaged from all logical thought and he needs me more than ever.
When I remember that he’s trying to communicate to me, it’s easy to ask some questions to get to the root of the problem.
Like, is he trying to avoid or escape?
What is he trying to get access to?
What attention is he trying to get from this?
And this is the big one, the one I most forget about, the one that changed the way I parented. What sensory input could be causing this behavior?
And there, as I sat in the Target parking lot and went through the questions, a light bulb went off.
If you’ve ever been to Target, you probably know exactly which one of those four questions was the cause of this behavior.
The lights, the colors, the people, the noises, the sounds.
The beeping, the wheels of the cart, the screaming baby in the aisle next to us, the clinking of hangers, the smells from the food stand, the bright and shiny toys, the waiting.
Oh the waiting.
Once I started to think of all the sensory input that my son had just had to go through, I kind of wanted to melt down with him too, let’s be honest.
When you leave a wild store like that, don’t you feel all crawly and irritable?
Don’t you want a peaceful ride home with the kids to be completely silent? They never do, but wouldn’t it be lovely?
Our senses are on overload and in this moment when I asked my son to get in the car, the thought of sitting next to his two year old sister kicking him and screaming was too much for him to bear.
But because he was so overloaded already, he didn’t have the logical thought to be able to say, “She’s too loud, I don’t want her to touch me.”
So it was my job to decipher what was going on. Because remember, behavior is communication.
Remembering these three words has been vital in the success of our home.
Getting through these meltdowns and understanding my kids when they’re struggling to tell me what’s going on. It helps me figure out what skills they’re lacking, what tools they need, and what we need to practice before the next time we head off to Target (or a friend’s house or school, or anywhere for that matter.)
Since that day in the Target parking lot, I have outfitted my son with a toolbox (both metaphorically and physically).
I’ve taught him how to recognize his triggers, how to take real, deep breaths, how to ground himself when he’s getting overloaded and how to communicate with me before it gets too far.
We’ve built a toolbox that goes with us everywhere.
It includes games that he can escape to, worry stones he can rub, stress balls he can squeeze, and visual reminders to help him remember, when his brain is no longer being logical.
You might even say that I’ve created my own toolbox of sorts.
Once I realized that behavior is communication, our life changed.
Once I understood that sensory stimulus from the environment could be a cause of some of the behaviors I was seeing, my parenting changed.
And once I realized that I could create a toolbox for both myself and my children, our relationships changed.
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