Disrespectful, or senses danger? How switching behavioural descriptions helps children

Disrespectful, or senses danger? How switching behavioural descriptions helps children

by Freya Lucas

January 19, 2022

Behaviour is often an expression of the way that children and young people have experienced their past relationships with significant people in their lives, be that parents, carers, educators or other family members. 


Hurt, pain and confusion can all be expressed through children’s behaviour, which may include lashing out physically or verbally, running away, or isolating themselves from others. 


The language educators use to describe this behaviour can shape the way that others view the child, and the way the child views themselves. Describing a child as aggressive, manipulative, out of control or dangerous can also change the way in which others approach the child and interact with them. 


Negative and unhelpful words can serve to blame children for their past experiences of trauma. It can lead to harmful labels being ascribed to children that they can never be rid of. 


Using trauma sensitive language, the Australian Childhood Foundation explained, can support children to feel seen, heard and understood, and can foster a sense of belonging and safety from which growth, development and repair can take place. 


When trauma-informed language is used, it helps the adults to remember the experience of the child, and creates an expectation that they will work to understand and react to children’s needs, rather than placing responsibility on the child to change. 


The Words Matter resource created by the Foundation provides a number of examples of negatively charged language, explanations of what may be happening for the child underneath the behaviour, and examples of language which is more helpful and supportive. 


A child who is described as being defiant, for example, may be having trouble disengaging from their caregiver, trying to predict the safety of the adults around them, or may struggle with change and transition. 


Rather than the word ‘defiant’, the Foundation suggests seeing the child as afraid, anxious, shut down, feeling out of control or needing distance. 


To access the Words Matter resource, please see here. More information about the work of the Foundation is available on its website, here