Stop Labeling Children

All behaviour is communication.

I read this somewhere in an article or a book along the way, and I have seen it many times since. It was a light bulb moment for me. It sounds ridiculous that something so simple could be so transformative, but it was. I started looking at challenging behaviour with fresh eyes. I stopped focusing on the actual behaviour, and started trying to read the message.

grief photo 2


A lot of parents will nod their head at something like this, but then say things like ‘that child is just mean’ or ‘my toddler is manipulative’ or ‘he is so defiant’ or ‘she is shy’ or ‘he is a bully’.

All children, all people, want to be included, accepted and liked within their community. If a child is acting in a way that is causing them to be excluded and disliked, it is because they are lacking the skills they need to successfully navigate and communicate in that situation. They need help, not condemnation. It really is that simple.

When we choose to label children, rather than unpack their motivations, we are missing an opportunity to help children communicate their needs and feelings.

When we label a child, we start to formulate expectations about future behaviour. There have been many studies done and a lot written about the influence of expectations. It is interchangeably referred to as Interpersonal Expectation Theory, the Pygmallion Effect or the Rosenthal-Jacobson Effect. A very simplistic summary of this theory about which entire books have been written, is that the way we behave towards someone is influenced by our perception of them. And in response, the way someone behaves towards us will be in a way to live up to these expectations.

There are so many situations where we may inadvertently find ourselves communicating low expectations. It could be that we only ever offer our child plain food ‘because they are a fussy eater.’ The pre-playgroup chat driven by your fears, where you say ‘if you hit your friends we will have to leave’, communicating that you expect your child to hit their friends. Constantly answering for your child without providing an opportunity for them to communicate because ‘they are shy’. And in this way, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy.


There is also the much more damaging and deliberate side of these expectations where our labelling of children definitively as ‘a bully’ or ‘manipulative’ or ‘bossy’ in our conversations about that child, play into our own and others’ expectations within our community. As soon as our internal or external dialogue decides that this is the way a child is, we are choosing to ignore what this behaviour is communicating and allowing it to define them.

All behaviour is communication. Even if it is behaviour we really don’t like. Even if the behaviour is persistent. Even if the easier answer is ‘that’s just the way they are.’

I think all parents can think of instances that they have held low expectations of children, often without realising at the time. And there is a lot of power in being aware of those tendencies. Being mindful in the moment allows us to shift from reactive thinking, seeing beyond the immediate behaviour, to a child that is struggling and needs help.

It is this kind of thinking that drives connection and builds trust.

I love this from Janet Lansbury – With the knowledge that their parents will always help them handle behaviours they can’t handle themselves, children feel safe to struggle, make mistakes, grow and learn with confidence.


1 thought on “Stop Labeling Children

  1. If only we adults thought about this stuff too when our behaviour is inappropriate. Looking behind the angry outbursts and poor actions is serious communication to truths that need talking through.
    Asking …what is this reeaalllyy about????


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