Debbie Gross, LCSW, Ltd. - Individual, Marital & Family Therapy

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One Therapist's Reflections

Why Do Kids Misbehave?

From July 15, 2009

There are four main reasons for misbehavior in children, as described in the STEP Manual (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting by Dinkmeyer & McKay). These are attention, power, revenge, and feelings of inadequacy. I will briefly describe each, and then share some key ideas in dealing with misbehavior in a very positive manner.

Attention – you’ve seen this many times. As soon as you get on the phone, those previously quiet kids become out of control and immediately and persistently need your attention. Parents spend so much of their time actually rewarding misbehavior for attention, that they actually teach kids to misbehave to get the attention! The more you talk, explain, and negotiate to quiet the attention-seeking misbehaving child, you are actually letting her know that making the wrong choices gets rewarded! At that moment, a child doesn’t think about whether the attention she is getting is negative or positive.

Power – you have it, they want it. From answering “no” to your every request, to avoiding their chores, homework, eating, and yes, even toilet training! Many moms and dads get sucked in to “one-upping” the child in power struggles. Many parents today were the ones raised by parents who felt kids had to respect their parents – or else. So they are taken aback when a child comments back or mouths off to an adult. The parent might typically answer back with a punishment that withholds some toy or activity for a period of time. When the child answers back again, the parent typically says, “fine, then make it 2 weeks!” Back and forth it goes, with the child eventually getting grounded for life for a small infraction, but a BIG mouth! The parent never (obviously) can follow through, so the child learns that back talking gives them the power to engage in a fight with an adult.

Revenge – someone takes his toy, he hits, screams, or kicks to retaliate. Verbal revenge typically sends parents through the roof – you send a child to timeout, and he screams “I hate you!” over and over while sitting in the corner. We find ourselves arguing back and forth with the child who is SUPPOSED to be taking a timeout! In addition, at very young ages, children’s physical responses are much quicker and get a much stronger response than their verbal ones do. The young child with emerging language skills who has a toy taken away by another child will get an adult to run to the rescue a lot faster when she hits or bites the offending child. By the time the child has figured out what to say, the offending child might be long gone! Likewise, when we raise our voices to deal with problems with our children’s behavior, they learn to yell when they are angry or frustrated. We sometimes model exactly the behaviors we want to extinguish in our children!

Inadequacy – hopefully you don’t see this often, as it represents the child who doesn’t feel good about himself, so his misbehavior just reinforces how “bad” he feels or how “bad” he believes he is. A child who hears many negatives (“don’t do that” or “stop it”), or who has developmental challenges, or grows up in an environment that is in turmoil, whether from family dysfunction or problems with society (work stressors, violence in neighborhoods are examples) sometimes cannot separate out the environmental or developmental factors from himself. This is the hardest type of misbehavior to address in counseling, first because the child might feel so hopeless at such a young age, it is heartbreaking, and second, because the child doesn’t have enough self esteem to believe he has a right to happiness or good things.

Positive Interventions That Are Easy to Carry Out

EYE CONTACT! Your eyes are the key! Most of the time, when we are dealing with a misbehaving child, we give him or her our guidance, and then keep looking at him or her, almost as if we expect a response. Say what you need to say, and move on – with your eyes as well as your conversation! Look away, walk away, break the eye contact. This is an especially powerful tool with kids seeking power. Let’s say you just told your child he cannot have a cookie before dinner. Don’t wait for the next response, which most likely will be to object to your decision. Change the subject, and direct your eye contact elsewhere. For example, after telling the child he can't have the cookie, turn your attention to getting dinner ready and state, “Hey, I’d love your help with setting the table. Here are the plates.”

OKAY? Don’t fall victim to the “Okay?” syndrome! Watch how many times, during the course of a day, you end your directives to your children with a questioning tone (voice raising at the end of the sentence) or with the word “Okay?” This gives a child the false belief that he has a choice in the matter! For example, you tell your child, “It’s time to put your shoes on, OK?” When she responds with “no,” you’re left with a dilemma. Either you insist she puts them on, because you really need to leave soon, displaying that choices aren’t really always choices, or you have to step back, wait a minute, then instruct again – without the questioning sound at the end.

CHOICES! Give appropriate choices, as often as you can, to empower children to make choices and to teach them that when you don’t give choices, there is no discussion. From the time they can understand and respond to your prompts, begin teaching simple decision-making. Asking if he would like apple juice or milk, does he want to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt, or would he like the basketball or the tennis ball to play with all help to teach a child he has some control in his world – when the control is offered. Keep choices down to two or three for kids under the age of five. As kids get older, make sure to increase number of choices when you see they are able to handle the options. Be careful to allow for a small amount of time to decide, but don’t sit and agonize as your child makes you wait and wait! If you ask about the milk or juice, for example, if she doesn’t give you an answer, give one reminder (you need to let me know if you want apple juice or milk). If she doesn’t respond, say, “I’ll choose for you this time – and then go get your choice for her. Don’t discuss it; simply state, “Since you can’t decide, I’ll give you milk." And then get the milk. If you wait for a response, typically that will result in your giving the child eye contact (power) and the child will provide a response; “NOOOO, I want juice!!!” When she gets mad at your choice, simply say, “Next time, when I give you your choices, you need to make a decision so I don’t have to.” If she chooses not to drink the juice, that’s her choice! Don’t then engage in the next power struggle over that!

NOTICE POSITIVES! For the inadequate child especially, but for all others as well, make sure to notice the positives. Catch the child doing something great, and point it out. Encourage him to try something new, and let them see you make mistakes, identify them, and then shrug them off as if to say, “we all are not perfect.” Help your child feel good about him or herself by encouraging choices, providing attention under positive circumstances, and deescalating power struggles and negative attempts to get your attention.

Please share your comments on this blog, and how you can use these tips to positively deal with your child’s misbehavior. And remember, children’s misbehavior, and how we address it is, in a big way, how our children learn to make smart, healthy choices in life.


6 Comments to Why Do Kids Misbehave?:

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Glen on Friday, June 08, 2018 5:41 AM
This is a very nice blog.
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uk essay writing on Sunday, August 26, 2018 1:36 AM
Kids do misbehave because they don't know how to react and how to live the life. They are not mature and serious enough. They need grooming.
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