The Language of Behavior

By Lesley S. Cunningham, MA, LPC

Do you ever wonder “why” someone does something, especially when it makes little sense to you? Why did my son intentionally break a figurine that I loved? Why did my daughter wear the skirt she knows I hate to my birthday dinner? Why did my partner look down when I asked him where he had been?

Baby Talk

There are whole divisions of behavioral science dedicated to understanding the various ways we speak without using our voices: eye movement, jaw tension, skewed smile. The earliest humans communicated without formal language. We learn in the cradle to begin communicating with gestures and primitive sounds, developing language as desired effects begin to occur after repeated use of a sound. If I cry, someone comes to feed me. Repeat the cry, they come and feed and check my diaper, too… learned response.

Behavior = Outcome

All behavior is linked to an outcome, either desired or not. If I scratch my head, it relieves the itch. If I press the brake pedal, my car slows down. If I yell loudly enough, my mom will back away, or if I look away when asked an uncomfortable question, the question might be dropped.

Functional Analysis

The secret to understanding behavior is looking at the outcome or response. Functional Analysis is a strategic way to look at the result/outcome following a behavior. If I repeatedly look at my phone during dinner, the outcome is to be distracted from my dinner partner and engaged in something that gives me more rewards; e.g., texting a good friend, playing a game to avoid the discomfort of the relationship. If my child screams and hollers around chore time enough to get sent to his room, the function is obvious; but being obnoxious enough to drive dad to the other room to have mom to myself, not so obvious. Dad may yell, “Be quiet!” (negative attention), a tolerable inconvenience on the way to the ultimate desired outcome – getting dad to leave the room.

Unintentional Reinforcement

Repeated negative behavior on the part of a child is often a trained response to parents’ reaction to the behavior. Whining, for example, would end if it didn’t produce a result the child desires. Often enough, a tired parent will relent and give in to the child’s desires, reinforcing the whining behavior.

Understanding the “Language”

Translating the meaning of behavior goes a long way to understanding why anyone chooses to do or continues to do a positive or negative behavior. What is the function of addictions? What is the function of an affair? Why smile at everyone you meet? Why throw a fit at homework time? While all of these behaviors may have individually specific rewards or consequences, they all produce a result that is translatable. Once we understand the language of the behavior – what is being communicated, our choice of response can be consciously more appropriate and enhance our understanding of each other.


Lesley Cunningham, MA, LPC


Lesley S. Cunningham is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute
specializing in relationships and attachment issues. You can reach her at or 720-509-9832.