How to Understand Your Child: 4 Steps

When my younger brother was turning 13 years old, I decided to throw him a big birthday party. I was 22 at that time and this was going to be his last summer in Michigan before he and my parents moved out of state for our dad’s job. I had worked so hard to put together games for all of his friends to play, even handmade a piñata in the shape of a beehive (thank you, Pinterest), and got a bunch of junk food for teen boys to enjoy. The day of his birthday fell on a weekday however, and his party wasn’t until Saturday. So I decided to pick him up from school, surprise him with homemade cupcakes and have a fun day out.

As he got into the car, he was already agitated. But I was too busy being excited about all the nice things I had prepared to notice. As we continued driving, his behavior became even more standoffish and contrarian. This was starting to frustrate me. I’m pretty sure that at some point I blurted out “Can’t you see all the nice things I’m doing? Why are being so ungrateful??”.

Not my finest moment, and it sure didn’t make things better for either of us. It was only later that I found out that he was bullied that day in school and that his behavior had nothing to do with being ungrateful, and had everything to do with being hurt. Had I taken a moment to OPEN, I would not have assumed where the behavior was coming from and most likely eased the situation rather than escalate it.

OPENing up includes four steps and can bring more compassion and understanding to your and your child’s lives.

What does OPENing up to your child look like?


OPENing up to a child is a form of parental mentalizing.

What is parental mentalizing? That is the ability to understand the mental state (of oneself and that of your child’s) that underlies outward behavior.

So how do you do it? It takes four steps, beautifully described in the article How to Decipher the Emotions Behind Your Child’s Behaviors” from the Greater Good Science Center, that I’ve trimmed down below (everything below in italics font is from the article mentioned above):

1. Reflect on your Own emotions.

Ask yourself:

  • How am I feeling right now?

  • What’s happening in my body?

  • What thoughts or feelings am I having that could be impacting my parenting or my child?

If I took a moment to reflect, I would have noticed that I really wanted to get the validation of “you’re the best sister in the whole wide world” and when I wasn’t getting that reaction, I started feeling frustrated and angry, and that blinded me from seeing the bigger picture.

2. Pause to reflect on your child’s thoughts and feelings.

When your child is exhibiting a behavior that is perplexing or upsetting to you, pause to allow yourself to think of all the different potential internal explanations for this behavior, such as the thoughts, feelings, or desires your child might have. Here, it is important to remember that often our emotions are layered, such that we may show one feeling but are actually experiencing others.

Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Is it possible my child is worried, sad, or angry right now?

  • Even though my child’s behavior makes it seem as though they are angry, is it possible they are actually feeling something else that they are too scared to show?

  • What underlying need might my child have that they are trying to express through their actions? How can I help them give voice to this need?

Again, had I paused for a few deep breaths and stepped back from my own experience, I would have realized that he was not being his usual self. By asking the questions above, I could have seen what was going on more clearly.

3.  Engage

Slow down and ask your child what they are experiencing. Use open-ended questions and convey curiosity in understanding your child’s true thoughts and feelings, wherever they may take you. Make sure to do this at a time when your child does not have any time pressure or competing demands on their attention (a hard thing for a parent to accomplish, we know!).

Statements and questions such as the following may help set the desired tone:

  • Is something on your mind?

  • I’m wondering if you are feeling upset about something.

  • I always want to know how you’re really doing.

I did ask why he was behaving the way he was, buuut I’m pretty sure it was in an aggressive “tell me now or else” kind of way… Not the same thing. Sometimes I wonder if he would have told me even if I asked in a more open way (him being a teenager at that time), but trying to engage in a kind way would probably not have hurt. It probably would have started building a safe line of communication earlier.

4.  Be open to New experiences

Once you have created the right environment to talk about your child’s thoughts and feelings, it is important to continue to convey a state of openness to new experiences.

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Learning the real cause of my brother’s behavior took me by surprise. But the next time he came home from school acting the same way, it was easy to assume that it was because he was bullied (which was not the case in that instance). And so on. The point here being that we cannot assume, no matter how much knowledge of past experience we have.

Remaining OPEN gives you a chance to better understand your child and their actions. This four step process is a tool to have in your back pocket to help you slow down, pause, and become curious about what is going on for your child.

In the interest of slowing down, let’s do this easy 5-minute breathing meditation.

Till next time.



Anna is a blog contributor, meditation leader and teacher, and photographer. You can follow her on Instagram @skillsforwellness and find her blogging away at reset brain + body. reset brain + body is a mental wellness practice where traditional talk therapy is elevated through the integration of meditation, nutrition, yoga and mindfulness. Connect with reset brain + body on Instagram & Facebook, check out the class schedule, or contact us to book an appointment.