Parents are often baffled by their children’s misbehavior. Worse, they are often hurt by their children’s behavior. I believe the hurt comes from reacting to the behavior as if the child were an adult and not keeping in mind that most children do not have the emotional maturity to get their needs met through effective communication. Not being able to use language to communicate their needs, they use their behavior.
Fortunately, if you can interpret the misbehavior correctly, you have a good chance of meeting the child’s need. According to the work of researchers and educators like Linda Albert, Don Dinkkmeyer (Sr. and Jr. and Rudolf Dreikurs, misbehavior often comes from one of these four needs: Attention, Power, Revenge and Avoidance of Failure. Let’s take a look at each.
When a child is doing something to get attention, the adult often feels irritated or annoyed. Quite likely the adult is busy or trying to get through something and resents being interrupted from his current task.
Let’s say that you are making cookie dough, so your kids can decorate cookies. You are busy measuring and mixing and paying attention to the recipe. The more absorbed you become with your recipe, the more disconnected from you your child feels. Because you are your child’s source of security, feeling disconnected from you is scarier than any other reaction you are likely to give.
To get your attention, so he feels connected again, your child begins play with the flour in the jar, running it through his hands. Seeing it, you scold him in an annoyed voice and remind him of his promise to be good. He stops for a moment, but soon his need for connection grows bigger than his fear of your reaction, so he starts banging the wooden mixing spoon on the tabletop. This time you bark at him a little more strongly until he stops.
By the time the dough is ready, you are feeling resentful that he hasn’t let you get on in peace and really don’t even want to make cookies with the kids. He feels tense and even more disconnected.
What can you do?
Ideally, when you get that annoyed or irritated feeling, you will see it as a sign of your child’s lack of connection and will strive to find a way to connect even as you continue with your task. Perhaps you will just look at him and lovingly acknowledge that it is hard to wait. Perhaps you will be willing to sacrifice a cup of flour and give him two small bowls so he can practice measuring a teaspoon from one bowl and dumping it in another. If he is old enough to read, perhaps you will put him in charge of reading the ingredients to you.
It is natural for children to want to feel that they are in control of their own lives. We all want to feel we have choice and can affect the outcome of things; children are not different. Power can come out in the form of bossiness as in, “You have to let me measure the flour!” Or can come in the form of refusal as in, “No, I’m not going to measure the flour and you can’t make me!” In both cases, the child just doesn’t want to be told what to do. The passive child will simply ignore your requests (but make no mistake, the goal of the behavior is still a bid for power).
To be thwarted threatens our own sense of control and—I am not sure why—being thwarted by our own children affects us more than when being controlled by almost anyone else. We react either by being more combative back (“Don’t you dare talk to me that way! There won’t be any cookies if I don’t get an apology”) or by giving in to whatever the child wants. The latter might help the child feel better in the short run; in the long run, however, giving in to our kids all the time makes them feel insecure (because while they want some control, total control is way too much responsibility and is scary).
What can you do?
Allow a child’s combative or resistant behavior to be a clue that she is feeling powerless. Start looking for ways to give her some power. One of the best ways to do this is to offer her some choice as in “Are you going to measure the flour using the half-cup measure or the full-cup measure?” Using an option like this, you neatly sidestep the rude tone and redirect your child into some new thinking. If you must hold the limit, can you offer something else instead as in “I cannot risk flour all over the kitchen, but would you like to grate the orange or count out 20 walnuts for chopping?” By giving her a choice, you reestablish your child’s sense of self.
When we realize or suspect that a child’s misbehavior has been done in the spirit of revenge, we are often not only angry, we are also hurt. We know that whatever we did to get the child mad, we did not do it to deliberately make him angry. If we allow our hurt to get the better of us, we might even try to get revenge back. Perhaps your child deliberately dropped the bag of flour. You know it was deliberate and now you feel like wringing his neck. Here you are taking your precious time to make cookies—and he repays you by being a jerk! Perhaps you retaliate by calling him clumsy or by punishing him with total responsibility for kitchen clean up later.
What can you do?
Unfortunately, you do have to be the responsible one!! Yes, I know it is hard not to get your own revenge back. But revenge is a sign of a child’s anger and defensiveness. It is behavior that says, “I am only okay if the score is even and I get my fair share.” This is a child who is living with a belief of scarcity. She is afraid that if she does not assure that she get her due by means fair or foul that she lacks importance or has less value. Instead of punishing her, it is your job to assure her of your love. You might say something like, “I know you wouldn’t have dropped the flour on purpose unless you had lots of angry feelings inside. I am really sorry you are feeling that way. What can I do to help you feel better?” I know this might feel counter intuitive to you as a parent and like you are condoning taking revenge, but it is too easy for revenge to get in a vicious cycle. You have to back off and meet anger with love. Love and forgiveness are the most effective tool for disarming the downward spiral of revenge. (Once the connection has been reestablished, then you can look at the flour and say briskly, "Now, what needs to happen here?" If the child truly feels connected again, she will move to help clean up the flour.
Avoidance of Failure
A frequent source of misbehavior is avoidance of failure. In some ways these misbehaviors seem the least aggressive but frequently because of the lack of action they can draw on, the adult himself feels helpless and depressed by the child’s reaction. These behaviors might have you banging your head against the wall.
Let’s say that you ask your child to cream the butter and sugar. Because the butter is a little cold still, the child finds herself struggling. Afraid she is not going to succeed to your liking, your child puts her head on the table and says, “I can’t do it. It’s too hard.” At first you encourage her brightly, “Sure you can! You can do it,” but she still maintains that she can’t and instead of lifting her head, sighs gustily. She is waiting for you to come in and rescue her. “Here,” you say as you pick up the spoon, “It’s not so hard. You do it like this.” And before you know it, you have done the whole task.
This kind of learned helplessness drains energy from both of you.
What can you do?
Avoidance of failure comes from a fear of disappointing one’s parents and of damaging one’s sense of being capable. There is a lot you can do to combat it. The primary action you can take is to help your child develop a growth mindset. Make mistakes okay by modeling making mistakes yourself and learning from them. Reassure your child that while getting the task “right” might affect the outcome of the cookies, it will not affect your love for her. Assure her that there will be other chances to make cookies and to get it right; Not everything has to be learned today. Finally, You can also help her problem solve about how to work around obstacles. Even a two year old might know that if the butter is too cold to blend right now, waiting 10 minutes might make all the difference. A three year old might suggest her parent get the task started by cutting the cube of butter into small chunks first. Given the chance for critical thinking, most kids can find a way of getting to a working solution that can allow them to be successful.
It is my firm belief that children are not inherently mean. Every child wants to feel loved, connected and like he is a good, worthwhile person. As he is growing and learning, however, his sense of self is vulnerable and easily hurt. When that happens, he feels alone, cast out in the world. At that point, a pleasing child will go overboard to win your approval. Most children, however, will work through their angry, hurt, scared feelings through some kind of misbehavior. Our job as parents is to be detectives and to try to understand the feeling and the source behind the behavior. That way we are most able to get the child’s needs met so that he can be his best self again.