LAPS: Understanding Behavior Improves Ability To Support Children’s Mental Health


May is Mental Health Awareness Month. A better understanding of the stages of development and child behavior can greatly improve our ability to support children’s mental health. It can also lead to stronger parent-child relationships which is the number one protective factor as children grow and face life’s inevitable challenges.

In order to support this learning, the Los Alamos Public Schools Prevention Program offers a series of Peaceful Parent groups where parents and caregivers can learn practical tools for understanding and regulating child behavior and make connections with other parents in the community. 

The information below, adapted from the North American Council on Adoptable Children website, explains how listening and responding to a child’s behavior can have long-term positive effects.

Behavior is one way we communicate with each other. When a baby is born, they are completely dependent on their parents. Crying is a signal to the parent that there is a need—a need that the baby cannot satisfy on their own. When we look at behavior as a message, our role as parents is to find the child’s underlying need. 

When children do not know how to verbally express their needs, they “speak” through their behaviors. When a parent can stop, pause, and “listen” to the behavior of a child, it can become quite obvious what the child is saying. 

As children get older, we begin to expect more compliant behavior. When children are not compliant we say that a child is displaying “attention seeking behaviors.” 

Meeting the child’s underlying need creates the opportunity to help a child correct their behavior through teaching moments. Teaching children how to communicate their needs is the key. 

Neuroscience, specifically the concept of neuroplasticity, tells us that the brain is ever changing and has the ability to continually formulate new connections. In the past, it was believed that once we were hard-wired one way, we simply had to accept what we were given. However, brain scan imaging shows us that we are actually creating new connections all the time. This is even more true for children during their developmental years. Taking the time to “listen” to a child’s behavior and then teaching them  how to express their needs will help them become equipped to have a more positive long-term future.

Parenting a child with challenging behaviors on a day-to-day basis, taking the time in every interaction to first listen to the behaviors in order to get to the underlying need, takes a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy. It can be  easy to lose sight of the idea that behavior is the language of a child. Over time, however, this investment of time and patience will be returned in a happier, more independent child and a stronger, more cooperative parent-child relationship.

This article was adapted from the North American Council on Adoptable Children website. For more information and resources, check out

Peaceful Parenting groups will continue in the fall. Contact LAPS Prevention Support Specialist Brandi Seekins at for more information.