Newsletter

6 Reasons Your Child Misbehaves

Boys fightingWe’re great at calling out our kids for their misbehavior, but rarely do we take the time to look into what provoked that behavior in the first place. We just want it to change, and so we use some type of manipulative tactic (rewards or punishments) to try to get the behavior we want. Seldom does it work—at least in the long run. The behavior alone is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s what lies beneath the surface that needs our attention—and also where real change occurs.

We’re quick to say things like, “He’s just doing that to get my attention” or “She did that for no reason at all.” These statements indicate we do not understand behavior. First of all, why wouldn’t a child want your attention 24/7? When he is dismissed or yelled at for going after it, he gets the message that he’s bad for wanting it.

There is always a reason for unacceptable behavior, whether we see it or not. You may never know what it was that provoked a particular behavior—maybe another child called your child a name in school and she’s taking it out on her little brother. The important thing to know is that there is always a reason.

Children are very impulsive and their emotions get the better of them a great deal of the time. We certainly say and do things we don’t mean, don’t we? Let’s give our kids that same leeway. They make lots of mistakes. We needn’t treat their actions as inexcusable.

Here are some possible reasons for your child’s misbehavior:

  1. She feels misunderstood. Let’s say she has hit her little brother. You punish the hitting by yelling, blaming, sending her to her room, taking something away or threatening her. You ignore the fact that she was provoked: her brother took something of hers or gave her a look, or he represents competition for your time and attention. The hitting is not okay, but the more you react, the more she feels misunderstood.
  2. He feels unacceptable or unloved. A child’s greatest need is acceptance. When you try to get him to be different, to do something he just can’t, he thinks you don’t like him the way he is and so he behaves accordingly. You react punitively thinking the negative effect will eliminate the undesirable behavior, but the message to your child is that you don’t accept him the way he is.
  3. She feels left out, alone. Whether she’s been rejected by a friend, she’s left behind, she’s isolated in time out, or not invited to a birthday party, a young child will feel abandoned and very alone. Kids don’t go to other kids and ask, “Has that ever happened to you? How do you feel about it?” Instead they feel like they’re the only one in the world.
  4. He can’t meet up to your expectations. When you set the bar higher than your child can meet because you don’t understand how hard it may be for him to do what you want, you send the message that he’ll never be good enough.
  5. She thinks it’s unfair. You name it and kids think it’s not fair. You try to reason with her about why it is fair. By denying her feelings, she feels it all the more.
  6. He feels stupid, less than, not as good as others. Whether your child knows he cannot do the math problems like his classmates, his sibling always seems to have an easier time of it, his peers choose someone else, feeling like a loser can lead to resentment and anger toward others.

Your job is to understand what emotions lie beneath the surface and not simply react to the tip, to only what you see. First connect with your child’s feelings whether or not you agree or think they are justified. “You think what I said is unfair.” “You get sick and tired of your brother being around.” “It’s really hard to think you’re not as smart as the rest.” No buts, no reasoning. When you deny their feelings—“You are just as smart as everyone else”—you add to the feelings of alone and misunderstood. When you connect, your child feels understood and accepted. Then she will be willing to see how she could have handled it differently.

Unacceptable behavior is your signal that your child is HAVING a problem, not BEING a problem. When we address only the behavior, usually with some form of punitive reaction, we add insult to injury. Why would she want to change her behavior if she is made to feel bad about herself? As Jane Nelson of Positive Parenting says, “If we want our children to do better, why do we think we must first make them feel worse?”

No matter how unjustified or wrong you think your child’s emotions are, that hurt, that desire, that feeling of being misunderstood, unacceptable, a disappointment are the feelings he has. He wants to know you understand what it feels like. When you can help him feel normal for having big feelings, he will feel okay be more willing to cooperate and learn.

 

 

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24 comments on “Newsletter
  1. amy russell says:

    So true. I appreciate the simplicity of the message: let go of the fear and be there. Thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    How very true! I feel so guilty of not been able to do just this 1 thing – “Be there for her”.
    But as I read this article, I find some hope that it is never too late to change

  3. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    That’s brilliant Bonnie, I can never get enough of these messages; sometimes the same message “wrapped up” in different ways, and every time it makes it more and more easy to absorb and take on board in an unconscious/subconscious way. Thank you for these gifts Bonne! Warmest Amelia :)

  4. Kristi says:

    Amen Bonnie,
    For many years my son was overwhelmed with the stimuli of the world and fell apart multiple times daily. He would become a screaming, writhing, spitting creature who scratched his own face to bleeding trying to deal with the difficulty of ordering food from a menu! So many public breakdowns it was so hard to know what we should be doing! Get tough and demand that he “behave”? Well that really didn’t help. Thanks to you and a local therapist I learned not to get caught up in MY emotions when he was out of control of his, just be there. We learned to limit the stressors for him. Today he is a different kid. Successfully navigating the high school waters of intellectual, social and physical challenges and knows when he has had enough and needs to have some downtime. As a primary care provider who sees a lot of parents struggling-I tell them to relax-be there, keep them safe and don’t take their behavior personally- and of course I recommend your books and website! Keep up the great work, and thank you.

    • admin says:

      Kristi – Thank you so much for this comment. I hope everyone reads it. I may even add it to another article when I share parents experiences. You have been in the trenches and know what it’s like to have a difficult kid, didn’t try to change him, and came out the other end with a great kid. These stories are so important for parents to read.

    • Betsy says:

      “Don’t take their behavior personally” — This has become a mantra for me, thanks to Bonnie’s advice. I wish I had employed it when she was a toddler and preschooler. But better late than never!

  5. Amber says:

    hi bonnie,
    thanks for sharing this. I worry about my daughter a lot too, but I guess I don’t give her enough credit either.

  6. Kirsten says:

    This was a timely piece for me. Had just done back to school night and came home to an 11 year old anxious about leaving all his school work at a friend’s house. He was anxious and I had listened to the message of the night, “let them have these experiences where it is safe, don’t rescue them, 70% of this year is organization”, but I knew what my own child needed in order to sleep wasn’t my fear that he wasn’t ever going to pull it together…I also have a much more emotionally challenging middle son (9) and he is often trying so hard, but so inflexible about the actions of others, and still having tantrums, yet intelligent, sweet, and sensitive, sometimes the scariest part is when we aren’t present and then everything gets catastrophic. I was pleased to see the comment above and curious as to how Kristi got through the trenches without worrying about the impact on the family and her son’s self image ?

  7. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    Kristi your comment was so good to read, thank you too :)

  8. Leah Davies says:

    I love your quote, “You are your child’s mountain. While she swirls and blows like a hurricane, sometimes a tornado, around you, she needs to count on your stability and most of all your faith that she has and will continue to have whatever it takes to get through whatever it is” That is wonderful advice. – See more at: http://bonnieharris.com/the-connective-parenting-newsletter/newsletter/#q1

    For 11 additional complimentary parenting handouts, video, and activity that is dedicated to helping parents raise responsible, caring adults, see: http://www.kellybear.com/ParentTips.html

  9. Kristi says:

    In response to Kirsten’s question: it wasn’t elegant, or seamless or a straight path, (and still isn’t) that’s for sure – but I think that is the essence of parenting. No matter what our virtual personas (or that of our friends) depicts to the outside world. It’s messy and scary. Parenting can be like walking alone in a dark forest. We learned to recognize early when WE needed counsel, we also allowed our son a chance to intermittently work with a child therapist, and brought along his sibling. One of my biggest realizations was: I needed to let go of MY agenda for my child. He is who he is, AND he is not this behavior currently. I learned (to try) not to get attached to ANY behavior, whether I liked it or didn’t like it, because it is likely to change. The family dynamic is a huge challenge always. My husband and I try to find common ground and create a united front. We learned it didn’t matter what other people thought we should do with our child, including family… we simplified life. Keep them fed, safe, loved. Keep looking out of the trench occasionally for some inspiration Kirsten and remember “This too shall pass” !

    • admin says:

      Kristi – This is so beautifully put. I so appreciate your response. I totally agree – families are a messy business not matter that they look like. Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. I love the steps of your realizations and how you maneuvered your way.
      Thanks for this.

  10. MK says:

    What you write Bonnie rings so true for me. What can I do when I realise that the way I was parented undermined my confidence and felt like it cut me off at the knees. I feel I have very little resilience myself and don’t want to make the same mistakes. How can I build my own confidence along with my daughters?

    • admin says:

      MK – What you are describing is exactly why I wrote my book, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. It is all about how our own childhood experiences effect how we parent our children – and most importantly, what we can do about it. I would highly recommend checking it out. You can get my book on amazon, you can get the audio download version of it on my website, you can also order the workbook filled with exercises to go along with it. And I have a When Your Kids Push Your Buttons teleseminar available for download that is 12 hours of the Buttons workshop and has the workbook included for more intense work. You can read about it here.

  11. i love the simplicity of this message! This is a challenge for me at home with two teenagers and the ups and downs that teenage life brings. I recognize how my frustration may have actually been perpetuated by my own actions of protecting and solving problems that they should be given the chance to handle themselves. With a college student 1200 miles away this challenge becomes more complicated at times. My goal is to practice by stepping back this week.
    Bonnie… I would love to add a link for this article on my preschool blog, which is private to families enrolled at The Amherst Preschool. Is that possible?
    Thank you
    Ellen Grudzien

  12. The question about teen disrespect brought up a few things for me.
    I’m passionate about this because I grew up with a father like this. He rarely listened to me. He only wanted a relationship on his terms. He was disrespectful to me and never apologized. As a result even as an adult I was never able to be close to him (Despite many attempts). Because he couldn’t be human with me I never respected him. Instead I felt sad for both of us. He was too proud to meet me as a human being. We both lost something valuable.

    In many families, ideas about “obedience” and “respect” get intertwined. Obedience is an action, respect is a feeling. Obedience comes from power over and respect comes from power with. Obedience is enforced using power and it disconnects the two people involved (and creates escalating power struggles). Respect relies on relationship and connections and comes from influence, not force. Like toddlers who are learning who they are in the world, teens too go through a developmental stage of learning about power. When a 4 year old is stubborn and says no or demands that she has to do it her way it can still be “cute”. Not so with a 14 year old.
    14 year olds want to be engaged and respected. This comes from listening, being humble and over and over again repairing mistakes. Adults get to lead on this. (We have the more developed prefrontal cortex).
    Working with a partner who is demanding obedience is challenging but using the same tools that are effective with teens work for partners too. Connect before correct.
    When (teen) is yelling and being inappropriate, it seems like you are worried that he will not grow up to be a healthy adult. You dream of having a son who has manners and treats others respectfully. I appreciate it that you are willing to stand up for me (This is the connect).
    Then the correct or request: My request is that when you sense he is being disrespectful to me that you ask before you intervene. I promise I won’t ignore the problem. My approach will be to wait until things calm down and then ask him to make a repair. I want him to be able to make mistakes – even if they are disrespectful and then have time to think about them and repair them.

    The other thing this mom can do is coach her son on making repairs and asking for repair. If the relationship isn’t already too strained it could be a gift to his dad. Eg. Dad, you were right. It was not cool for me to yell at mom. I’ve apologized to mom. I also didn’t like it when you called the police. When you are ready I’d like an apology and would like to make a plan about how to solve problems when you are angry.

  13. Karen Daley says:

    My husband and I have been having this food argument since our son started solid foods. He’s 10 now. My husband still eats as if he’s a teenager, pizza, chips, pop,etc. & I gave up junk food when I became an adult, minus my once a month sugar fix a week before my cycle starts. We work different shifts so when I’m home it’s all the good stuff & when my husband is home he’s either a short order cook, making two different meals or they are munching on take out (grease & more grease)when there is a full fridge of healthy options. My son knows all about healthy eating & all the good stuff is served in school. How do we all get on the same “healthy eating” page?

    • admin says:

      Karen, it is of course important to convince your husband that modeling good food eating and having only good food in your house is important. You might talk to him about what he thinks in terms of his own health and if he approves of your son following in his tracks. Make sure he understands how serious you are about this issue and what your worry is.

  14. Mary Ellen says:

    In response to “Transitions from Day Care”, sometimes children fall apart because they are exhausted from their day. Not because of stress or because they don’t want to stop playing, but because they have run out of inner resources. None of us deals well with change at the end of a long day, but people will look funny if we act howwe are really feeling! :o)

    • admin says:

      Thank you Mary Ellen. You are so right. I include exhaustion and lacking inner resources with stress. Stress comes in many degrees and varieties. When children are stressed in any way, they need our understanding and patience more than ever.

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