Behavior is communication, but it’s incomplete communication.
Last last couple of years, when Ryan was regularly throwing fits almost every morning as I wrestled him to the school bus, I knew he was trying to communicate his dissatisfaction with something, but I didn’t know what. Was he telling me he didn’t like school? That he didn’t want to interrupt whatever game he was playing? That he would miss me? That someone was hurting him?
Crying and going boneless express unhappiness, but not reasons.
I would twist my brain in knots trying to ask the Right Question that would prompt Ryan to reveal the Right Answer. But when a kid lacks the language to reliably answer yes/no questions, it’s all but impossible to tease out the information you need to ease his misery.
This year, Ryan gets on the bus happily, without resistance and without looking back. I can even announce “Ryan, the bus is here” when he’s not ready, and he’ll come running to get his shoes and get out the door.
Of course I’m thrilled that he clearly likes his new school more than his old school – that whatever had been making him so miserable has been resolved.
But all I can think about now is how upset he was about school the last two years, and how totally useless I was to him. He tried to tell me…something…in the only way he knew how, and I didn’t understand the message. I failed him. I tried my best to understand, and I failed. And I kept putting him on that bus, sending him to that school, not knowing if there was some monster he saw every day, not knowing what form that monster might take.
I don’t blame myself for lack of trying: I tried as hard as I could to decipher Ryan’s coded pleas for help. But I didn’t understand what Ryan was trying to tell me, so I didn’t know what to do for him.
And I fear that the next time Ryan hands me an indecipherable message, I’ll be just as useless to him.
All I can do is try to interpret the behavior. As some wise, faceless person on the internet said, “empathy is understanding; getting there is love.”