Use SEATS to help you understand why your child is engaging in challenging behaviour, such as hitting, kicking, biting, lying, whining, running away, and more. Getting curious about your child’s behaviour is the first step to effectively responding and ending these behaviours.
Table of Contents
Imagine this: Your child starts to whine as soon as you sit to feed your baby. Or, your child slams the door to their room after you’ve repeatedly asked them not to. Or maybe your child starts hitting their sibling after a busy day out. Maybe they even lie about what they’ve done.
For many parents, these behaviours can trigger thoughts like:
“Why can’t they just behave?!”
“This behaviour is disrespectful!”
“How do I make this bad behaviour stop?”
If you’ve been taught that behaviour determines whether a child is good or bad, it makes sense that whining, hitting, lying, biting, screaming, and other challenging behaviours would trigger thoughts like this.
However, a child who engages in these behaviours isn’t bad. Their behaviour is communicating a need! You can end challenging behaviour and create long-lasting change by understanding more about your child’s needs.
How to Create Long-lasting Change
When a child struggles with hitting, lying, or whining, one of the most powerful ways to approach these behaviours is to get curious.
Instead of responding to their behaviour with short-term solutions like punishment, threats, or yelling, getting curious allows you to come up with a solution that solves the root cause of the behaviour – the need the behaviour is trying to meet. This is what creates long-term change.
Most behaviours are communicating one or more of the following needs:
- accessing a Tangible Item or Activity
A helpful way to remember the needs your child might be trying to communicate is by using the acronym SEATS.
Need #1: Sensory
Sensory needs refer to an individual’s requirement for sensory input to regulate emotions and improve their functioning. Sensory needs rely on input from our sensory system, which includes our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Sensory needs can vary from person to person, and some individuals may have heightened or reduced sensitivity to certain sensory experiences.
If your child has a sensory need, it could mean they are seeking more sensory input or seeking to avoid sensory input.
When a child is showing aggressive behaviours, like hitting, biting, throwing, or kicking, a helpful place to start getting curious is with your child’s sensory experiences and needs.
Sensory-seeking behaviours help your child get a need for sensory stimulation. These behaviours can be a sign that your child’s body is craving more sensory input.
To help you determine if your child’s behaviour is sensory-seeking related, ask yourself:
- Does the behaviour happen after my child’s been sitting for long periods? For example, after school or a long car ride.
- Does the behaviour happen when my child is indoors for long periods of time? For example, on rainy days.
Sensory-seeking behaviours might look like:
- Kicking their shoes off when they get home.
- Throwing their backpack on the floor.
- Slamming the door to their room.
- Chewing the colour or sleeves of their shirt.
- Flicking or tapping furniture.
Sensory-avoiding behaviours are typically triggered by overstimulation. These behaviours are a sign that your child is receiving too much sensory input, and they need relief.
To help you determine if the behaviour is sensory avoiding, ask yourself:
- Does the behaviour happen when my child is hungry, tired, or in pain?
- Does the behaviour happen before meals, while fighting a cold, or teething?
- Does the behaviour happen in cluttered, busy, noisy, or brightly lit environments – like shopping malls or grocery stores?
Sensory avoiding behaviours might look like:
- Screaming when you brush their hair or teeth.
- Hitting, kicking, or biting after a busy day out.
- Spitting or refusing foods at meal times.
- Crying when you put their socks on.
For example, if your child is hitting, you can get curious to help them proactively meet their unique sensory needs. Do they need more sensory input? Are they overwhelmed by the sensory input in their environment? Hitting can be a sign that a child is craving more input, or it can signal that your little one is overstimulated.
Curiosity can help shift how we see and respond to behaviour so we can help our children meet their needs before they resort to challenging behaviour like lying, biting, throwing, biting, or more to get their needs met!
Need #2: Escape
Your child’s behaviour can signal a need to escape an undesired activity or interaction. This is commonly seen when children feel bored, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or frightened.
For example, imagine a preschooler coming out of their room at night to find their parents. They repeatedly defy their parents’ rule about having to stay in bed. They lie about needing to go potty. On the surface, this behaviour might look like:
- An attempt to stay up later.
- Blatant disrespect.
However, when we look at the behaviour on a deeper level, it can be a sign that the preschooler is struggling to sit with a really big feeling – like fear of the dark. Leaving their room helps solve their need to escape and go somewhere that will make them feel safe. Lying about having potty serves to get them closer to you.
Other common escaping behaviours for children are:
- Lying about needing to do something.
- Running away from you.
- Covering their eyes or ears.
- Engaging in behaviours they know will get them removed from the environment (e.g. screaming in the store).
- Refusing to answer a question or saying “NO!”
A child showing any of these behaviours or who continues to act out no matter how often they are punished may be struggling to communicate their need to escape. By getting curious and discovering their need, you can create solutions that help your child even before the behaviour happens!
Need #3: Attention/Connection
Caregivers often view certain behaviours as attention-seeking and label this as a negative reflection of the child. However, these behaviours are not bad, wrong, manipulative, or negative; they’re normal, healthy, and vital to survival!
Children’s brains are wired for closeness and connection with you, so to get their need for connection met, they often have to get your attention. They’ll do whatever they can to ensure you notice them; you may begin seeing challenging behaviours if they don’t know how to do this helpfully and effectively. So, instead of labelling these behaviours as “attention-seeking” behaviour, it can help to shift the language and refer to these behaviours as “connection seeking.”
If your child is struggling with connection-seeking behaviours, it can help to tune into the relationship. Why might your child be seeking more connection with you?
When you’re distracted or busy, whether it’s for a short or long period of time, it can fuel a child’s need for connection. This might look like:
- Throwing toys.
- Hitting a sibling.
- Slamming doors.
Your child might resort to these types of behaviours because they know it will get a big reaction from you; even if the big reactions are negative, they are still meeting your child’s need for closeness and connection with you.
Knowing this, another way to look at connection-seeking behaviours is like this:
- They’re throwing toys, so you’ll look over at them.
- They’re hitting a sibling, so you come to them.
- They’re swearing/shouting to see what you’ll do.
- They’re slamming doors, so you hear them.
Having the perspective that these behaviours are your child’s way of saying, “I really want to spend time with you, but I don’t know how to tell you!” can be a really helpful shift so you can respond more calmly and effectively.
Need #4: Accessing a Tangible Item or Activity
There may be situations where your child’s behaviour is a result of an attempt to access a tangible item. When a child wants something they can’t have, it can result in big behaviours like kicking, hitting, whining, screaming, and swearing.
If you’re wondering if your child’s behaviour is the result of seeking a tangible item, here are a few questions to consider:
- Does the behaviour happen when you tell them they can’t have something, like a toy in the store or another cookie?
- Does the behaviour happen when they see a sibling with something they want, like a toy or snack?
- Does the behaviour happen when you tell your child to take turns with a toy or that it’s time to go?
There may be times when this behaviour is less about a tangible item and more about an activity (like going to the park). Either way, a child might have no other way of communicating their desire other than to kick their legs, scream, or hit.
When we get curious about their behaviour, we can notice patterns or triggers. For example, you might notice that your preschooler whines about everything as soon as you start feeding your baby. Now that you’ve noticed the pattern, you can start solving this behaviour by meeting their need in advance, such as giving your preschooler a snack before you start to feed your baby.
Need #5: Stability
Sometimes, a child’s behaviour can indicate a desire or need for stability. Your child may have started hitting, screaming, or whining out of nowhere. When your child suddenly engages in a specific behaviour, it can help to get curious about any recent changes.
Life transitions or big changes can trigger stability-seeking behaviours. If you’re wondering if stability is at the root of your child’s behaviour, consider this: Has your child had any major changes in their life? These situations might include:
- Moving to a new home.
- Switching schools.
- Adding a new baby to the family.
- Separation or divorce.
Getting curious about the level of stability in your child’s life can help you get to the bottom of big behaviours.
Get Curious By Tracking Behaviour
Getting to the root cause of challenging behaviour can be tricky because your child’s behaviour could change based on the need your child is trying to meet, or the behaviour could stay the same, but the need your child is trying to meet changes. The behaviours and needs could change depending on the time of day, situation, environment, and more. It’s a lot to keep track of! Here are two practical steps to help you get to the root cause of your child’s behaviour.
Step 1: Ask Questions
Asking questions is a great place to start to help you get to the bottom of your child’s behaviour. Here are two key questions to consider as you’re getting curious:
- What happened before the behaviour occurred?
- What happened after the behaviour occurred?
Step 2: Take Notes
Next, help yourself remember the answers to the questions and anything else you might notice by writing everything down. This will be the most helpful way for you to see patterns and trends in your child’s behaviour. Once you notice a pattern, you can start implementing changes!
Read our blog post, “How to Tackle the Whining Phase“, for an example of how a mom saw less challenging behaviour after tracking her son’s behaviour!
Remember, behaviour is communication. Your child is not bad; they are intelligent and capable of getting their needs met. You can help your child find new ways to help get their needs met that will serve them well for the rest of their life.
Understanding WHY your child is hitting, biting, lying, whining, screaming, or doing other challenging behaviour can help you shift the way you see your child’s behaviour. That deeper understanding will help you come up with ways to meet your child’s needs before the behaviour happens!
If you found this blog helpful and want to know even more, or if you need more in-depth support, our Parenting Little Kids course has over 35 video lessons and has helped thousands of parents tackle challenging behaviour, learn how to discipline effectively, and reparent themselves in the process.
You deserve to enjoy parenting and be the best parent you can be!