Behaviours are an Expression of Feelings

One small toy is knocking over some items in their room while another toy has their hands in the air

For children, often play and sometimes challenging behaviours are an expression of feelings. Rarely will children come home from a hard day and tell you exactly what happened.

More often, children will show you how they are feeling through play or behaviours that can sometimes be challenging. Also, the feelings being expressed may not be what you think they are. What I mean by this, is sometimes what appears to be anger, may actually be guilt, shame, embarrassment, or some other feeling that may be more difficult to express to others. In my experience, anger is more normalized. I see more people in movies, in public, in my work, and in my life show anger than I have seen people share feelings of embarrassment. It can be hard to express these possibly vulnerable feelings.

Small toys in a treehouse with circles of different colours on their stomachs

One of the best metaphors I’ve heard, that I will never forget, is that feelings can sometimes be like candy-coated chocolate. On the outside, the side we can see, there is this hard layer and let’s say that is anger. On the inside, there is this soft chocolate that is hidden, perhaps that is sadness, embarrassment, or shame.

An ice burg with an arctic land with arctic animals and small toys on the top and another scene with small toys, a cabin, and an old house on the bottom

Another great visual, I try to remember, is feelings represented as an iceberg. What appears on the surface is just a glimpse of what may be going on in someone’s life. We might see anger, but underneath that, there may be grief, loneliness, or hurt.

Group of small toys sitting around a table with tea and cookies

Years ago, I co-facilitated a few groups through an attachment-based program for parents and caregivers called Connect. This group was designed to strengthen the child-caregiver relationship, by working on skills to take a step back from the behaviour and look for clues on what is going on for their child. For example, if a child came home and said that they hated soccer and they never wanted to play again, and you just paid the bill for their soccer for the year…

One small toy is knocking over some items in their room while another toy has their hands in the air

Your initial instinct may be to feel your feelings about being out that money. If you take a step back and ask your child if they would like to share what is going on for them, you may not lose out on those pre-paid fees after all. Perhaps they are upset because their soccer cleats were made fun of, perhaps they are upset because they missed a goal, or perhaps they are upset for some other reason. It can be helpful to learn what is going on beneath the surface of what you may be seeing.

Small toys are playing soccer. One looks like it is tripping while two others are laughing

It can also be helpful to ask whether your child would like to share, would like some time, or would like to do something else with you until they are ready to share. The main takeaway I got from these groups is that almost every behaviour is an expression of a feeling. So, as a parent, I try (as best as I can) to focus on the feeling behind the behaviour. I remind myself that this can be extremely difficult sometimes. It is also the way I find best to connect with my child.

I have not facilitated this group for a while and just looked up their website, it seems that they have updated and expanded. If you are interested in learning more about these groups or this program click here or if you are a parent or caregiver and interested in attending a Connect group, click here to find a group in your area.

One small toy playing in the sand with small toy animals while another toy is present

As the video at the beginning showed, another way that children may choose to express their feelings is through play. I believe that one of the easiest ways to discover what is going on for a child is to be present in their play at least once a day. This does not have to be for long; the quality of the time spent matters more than the quantity.

In their play, let them lead. Imagine they are the director, and you are the stagehands or assistants. Let them tell you how their play will go. Ask for direction when necessary. If they would like help to resolve an issue in the play, help them lead a brainstorming session with you and try to remember to thank them for sharing their story with you.

Small toys throwing a beach ball with emotion words written in the ball

If you are supporting a child who is not that interested in play but enjoys games, there are some fun activities that you could suggest to them to try together. Emphasis on suggesting because there is a multitude of ways to express feelings. Maybe it is play, maybe it is games, or art, or crafts, or activities, or whatever feels best for them.  

In front of a gumball machine filled with skittles, sits small toys surrounded by skittles on top of a sheet with questions and fill-in-the-blank statements

Here are a couple of games that seem to be a hit with those that have chosen to try them with me.

Skittles Sharing Game

In this game, we pick out a Skittle and answer the question or finish the statement that corresponds to the colour on a chart, such as “Say one healthy thing that you can do to help yourself calm down when you are upset or angry” or “I feel excited when _______.” This game may help us share our feelings and ideas for coping skills to help with our feelings so we can express them in healthy ways.

Beach-Ball-Of-Emotions Game

In this game, we use a permanent marker to fill up a beach ball or balloon with various feeling words. Then we toss the ball to each other and catch it. Whatever landed on our thumb we talk about a time we felt that way or a time we would feel that way. If both of our thumbs landed on a word, we get to pick which word we want to talk about. This may help to 1) build on our emotion words vocabulary, 2) allow us to express ourselves, and 3) normalize emotions by hearing from others who may deal with similar challenges and triumphs.

In games like these, it can be helpful for you to participate to hopefully normalize feelings for the child you are supporting. Click here for ways that I have found it helpful to share my grief (and other feelings too) while supporting children.

Whichever way the child you are supporting chooses to express themselves, try to remember behaviours are an expression of emotions and the feelings being expressed may not be what they appear. Give opportunities for play, games, art, crafts, and activities. Help them find what works best for them to feel safe to share their feelings with you.