Is my child ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’?
There’s many times throughout a day where we look at our child and see immediately that they’re not okay. Maybe they fell off a swing, kicked their toe or didn’t get something they wanted. Their action and their face, clearly tell us they’re not okay.
But how do we tell if our child is okay emotionally? There are the obvious ways – crying, frowning, yelling. These all show us that our child is having a feeling and they need support. What happens, though, when their feelings are not obvious? How do we tell if our child is okay or not okay?
Often, our child uses their behaviour as a means of communicating with us. Sometimes they are acting with purpose. Other times, their behaviour is unconscious and not something they are aware they are doing.
When my eldest child was little, behaviour as communication is not something I was always aware of. There were many things he did that I couldn’t understand.
“Why does he act that way?”
“What makes him do that?”
These were constant thoughts running through my mind. They were the topic of many conversations. If only I knew when he was 3yo, what I know now.
If you’re asking the same questions, this blog post will help you avoid years of not knowing the answer. There’s also more resources here.
What I didn’t know is that children’s behaviour, especially in relationships, is linked to their attachment needs. Their behaviour shows us whether and how, those needs are being met.
Thomas is the class clown, retelling jokes and making the other kids laugh. Amelia is brave and is always smiling, even when she is hurt. Jason spends a lot of time alone, working independently and the other children look to him for information if they don’t know the answer. In the school yard, Jasper gathers kids around him to play a game where he is the boss. Ava spends a lot of time going back and forth between the teacher and her desk, looking for support and affirmation that she is completing a task properly.
We could look at these children and make assumptions about who they are. Jasper is a leader, Ava is a social butterfly, Amelia knows big girls don’t cry and Jason’s parents tell him everyday that he is really smart. We could look at these behaviours and define them as personality traits. Or, we could look at them as simple behaviour as indicators of what that child needs. We could listen, instead of looking and ask why rather than simply see what is happening.
What we are seeing from these children is an insight into their attachment. Now, we can ask ourselves if the child is okay or not okay.
As adults, we are often able to identify what we need, and ask for it at any given time throughout a day. But children often can’t verbalise their need, even if they can identify it.
Ava might be worried that she won’t get an activity right, because she has been told many times that she doesn’t listen. Thomas might be worried that if he doesn’t keep everyone happy, they will see how sad he is. Jasper thinks the only way anyone will pay him attention is if he draws the attention to himself. All day long, our children are giving us cues to how they feel and they are also giving us mis-cues.
Children’s behaviour examples
The perfect example of a mis-cue is when some says, with tears in their eyes or a harsh voice, that they are “fine”. This is an indirect, contradictory message where what is said is inconsistent with what is seen. A cue, on the other hand, is a direct and obvious response that is consistent with what is seen. In this example, it would be someone who is crying and saying they are sad, or not okay; someone shouting that they are angry.
The key as parents, is to be able to see the difference between a cue and a mis-cue.
In my mediation practice I often hear parents say their child “is fine” and has “barely noticed the separation”. Usually, they will then tell me how wonderful their child is doing either at school or sport or with friends. They haven’t noticed anything different in their children’s behaviour. This doesn’t necessarily mean their child is okay. This child is often someone who before separation, wasn’t getting straight A’s in the classroom, had a lot of friends or excelled on the sporting field. This change in behaviour – even though it looks like it’s a change for the positive, is a mis-cue. Your child’s behaviour is an indication that they are funneling all their attention into this new thing, because they feel disconnected from their life, or that they have no control over their life, or because their family is falling apart they’re making sure these other bits of their life won’t.
Why is my child suddenly a straight A student when before, they mostly got C’s? This is the question we should be asking, rather than just looking at what is happening.
Parents assume that if their child wasn’t okay, they would be showing negative or rebellious behaviour. This isn’t always the case.
A personal story
My daughter took her final step toward equal time between her dad and me after her 5th birthday. We added 1 extra night a fortnight so all 3 children moved between our homes on the same schedule. This was the point that I had the most trouble getting used to the shared care arrangement. I wasn’t out every weekend drinking and partying, but I withdrew socially. I spent my child-free time alone at home, watching TV, and doing nothing. It didn’t resemble ‘depression’ type behaviour because I still participated in my children’s school and extracurricular activities, so it didn’t appear that anything had changed for me.. One might even have thought I was flourishing as I became involved in a couple of community activist roles too!
On the inside, I had no idea how to cope with my daughter being at school full time and all 3 children sleeping at their dad’s house for half the week. I didn’t know what to do with myself when she was gone. It was only an additional night they were away. But, it meant we no longer had our girls nights – when the boys were with dad and it was just the two of us.
Nobody knew I was so sad and lost when she was gone that extra night because it looked like everything was fine. If anyone asked, I told them I was okay. Keeping busy and doing the things I needed too hid my grief. From the outside, it genuinely looked like life was great for me. I was sending out a mis-cue. Redirecting attention away from how I was feeling and keeping it all locked up so no one would know I was really struggling.
Cue and Mis-cue
Now, I am a grown adult woman with a solid understanding of mental health – our children aren’t. Without spending time unpacking my behaviour and figuring out why I was doing those things, I would never have figured out what I really felt.
I missed my daughter and was worried people would judge me. Afterall, I had been sharing her care since she was 1yo. It was years since my divorce. One extra night without her doesn’t seem like much and I thought I would be seen as pathetic for being sad. Most parents look forward to a night without all their children, why didn’t I? People close to me were supporting me for so long so I was too scared to share my feelings. I didn’t want to be a further burden. There was so much more going on for me than what was obvious. It is the same with our children.
If you truly want to know if your child is okay or not okay, look at your children’s behaviour and ask ‘why’. Look deeper than that which is sitting on the surface. Ask your teen questions like, “you’re doing really well at school right now but you didn’t before the divorce, what do you think that is about?”. They probably won’t have the answer when you ask the question, but it will prompt them to start thinking about it. Then, you can come back to them at another time, and continue the conversation. Maybe you say something like, “I was thinking about those questions I asked you the other week, about school and the divorce, and I was wondering if maybe you’re so focused on school now because you feel like you don’t have any control over other things in your life”.
Cue and Mis-Cue
What’s important now, is to listen to your children’s behaviour. If they cry, they are giving you a cue. If they lash out at you in a way that’s indirect and unrelated to the conversation, it’s a mis-cue.
To nurture your child’s emotional resilience, enroll in the Circle of Security parenting program. You’ll receive support to understand attachment styles, cues and mis-cues. Find out more at ParentingWorkshop.com.au