Synergistic Parenting

Some causes of misbehavior

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When you think of the misbehavior of your child, remember that “misbehavior” is a word adults use–not children. What we call misbehavior may seem very different to your child. Children are naturally curious: they explore, they try, they test. This can develop into essential adult skills, though along the way be called misbehavior.

A stair step of causes
Studies of many children found four causes of misbehavior: a child seeking

  • attention
  • power
  • excitement
  • revenge

Fortunately, our own feelings often give us clues about which of these motivates a child. Those clues suggest actions most likely to help, though if they don't work, we try others.

Seeking attention is a frequent cause for behavior and misbehavior. Each of us seeks attention from a boss, a spouse, or colleagues almost daily. The more social we are the more we crave attention. Situations at work or in the family may increase our feeling a need to seek attention. In the same way children often want parent’s attention. The parent’s feeling is a clue: if we feel annoyed by a child’s words or behavior, the child probably seeks attention. The behavior may be either active or passive. Active is interrupting when you’re busy, while passive may be forgetting a chore. Try to remember when you were annoyed recently by a child, and try to remember what the child did that annoyed you. Could the child have been seeking your attention?

Try to ignore attention seeking misbehavior when you can, or respond indirectly. Invite the child to do a variety of tasks as well as fun things. Express your honest appreciation to the child during the work and afterwards. The child may learn to get attention in more positive ways. Seeking attention is normal, and we can encourage positive and useful attention seeking behaviors.

Seeking power is another cause of misbehavior. We adults may seek power at work, in organizations, or at home to satisfy our need for control. Our children behave in the same way. Parent’s feelings are again a useful clue: if we feel angry or provoked, the child probably seeks power. The child’s seeking power can be active, as by disobeying, or passive, by being stubborn or not hearing us. Reflect on times a child’s behavior made you angry and how he or she sought power.

What can a parent do about power-seeking? Frequent responding may encourage the child to continue a pattern of misbehavior for unhealthy reasons. But if the parent resists, the result often is a power struggle. Your child may become aggressive or stubborn. Once a power struggle begins, everyone loses! Better to walk away , listening to be sure the child won’t cause injury or damage. Try to redirect the child, offering alternatives. Encourage the child making decisions, which can give the child power.

Seeking excitement is another cause of misbehavior. People hang glide, scuba dive, or steal cars to satisfy their excitement. Some people crave excitement, while others do not. Each child similarly may want much excitement or little. The first walking and first words are exciting, and when a parent is excited, the child is more thrilled. Sports competition depends on wanting excitement. Hobbies can excite, such as flying model airplanes. Parents can help each child recognize the level of excitement they want and healthy ways to satisfy their desires. Reflect on your own desire for excitement, and how much each child seeks excitement.

Seeking revenge is the goal of a child's misbehavior usually after the child has tried other ways to meet its needs, such as seeking attention, power, or excitement. When these don't satisfy, the child may feel hurt and want to get even for feeling hurt. A child who seeks revenge may feel unloved or unappreciated. Revenge like a power struggle is a no-win situation. Parent’s feelings are the clue: When parents feel deeply hurt by a child's behavior or feel like getting even, that indicates that the child is probably motivated by revenge.

What can a parent do about revenge? The first step is to show that you won’t accept or play revenge, while you accept the child as a person. Show that you love the child. Show authentic appreciation for specific recent positive acts or behaviors by the child. Express appreciation for the child’s own self. Show acceptance and appreciation, and redirect the child. Perhaps then leave the scene for a while. Analyze what led the child to seek revenge, then think about how to avoid it.

Feeling inadequacy is a cause of misbehavior that is unfortunate. This feeling may arise from a child feeling he or she is able to do very little that is worth while. The child may feel helpless. The resulting behavior may be dropping out of school, skipping classes, or trying alcohol or drugs. Parent’s feelings are again the best clue: feeling discouraged and despair suggest your child’s actions stem from feelings of inadequacy. How you feel at work or elsewhere when you feel inadequate will help you understand your child's feeling, and suggest how you can cope.

How shall we respond to a child’s feelings of inadequacy? Ask yourself whether you have been critical of your child. Ponder whether critical statements have been more numerous than signs of affection, appreciation, and praise. As with revenge, remember any acts or behaviors of this child that were positive, and gently remind your child of them, while suggesting your appreciation. See if you can learn more about listening, so you can respond better and earlier to your child’s feelings.

This table summarizes this progression of causes and clues:

Parent's feeling:

Child is…

parent feels annoyed, bothered

seeking attention

parent feels angry, provoked, threatened

seeking power

parent feels angry, hurt, like getting even

seeking revenge

parent feels despair, hopelessness, like giving up
feeling inadequate

Peer pressure
Peer pressure is another cause of behavior at most ages. When a child starts playing with other children, or watching children interacting on television, peer pressure begins. "Let’s play with the blocks." "Let’s all go outside to swing." "Let’s see if we can get enough together for a game." "Every one is using makeup." "Every one else is driving!" The power of peer pressure depends on each child. Most children feel caught between the pressure to conform or rebel. Remembering your own struggles with peer pressure, think about how you can help your child in the struggle between rebelling and conforming to peer pressure.

Starting early parents can work with each child on ways to deal with peer pressure. Parents can help each child balance their own wishes with peer desires, and make decisions that the child feels good about. Parents may respond to peer pressure from a child's peers by conforming to some and resisting others, talking with the child about why you did what you did.

Learning why children misbehave is complex and difficult. A child’s behavior cannot be explained by separate causes, as may appear. A child may be motivated by one of these causes, but then another. Learn to focus on your own feelings that respond to your child’s behavior. Review the descriptions about behavior causes. You may want to write private notes about each individual child, and review them periodically. Healthy parenting requires patience and thinking, and after a while your child should respond with more positive and healthy behaviors and less misbehavior. And you may find more joy with each child.

Many feelings and events move children beyond what you have read here. Children envy. Children day dream. They don’t want to confront reality. Children are frightened. They respond to bullies and other neighborhood forces.

Essential summary
Now thinking of your own child, try writing a journal or diary to describe specific misbehaviors, and note the circumstances that seemed to cause it, what you did, and how well it worked. Review your journal to find clues that may improve your child's misbehavior.

One-with-one
Perhaps the most important parenting you can do is to spend time with each child, doing what that child wants to do. The activity is less important than your talking together, listening, sharing in what your child wants to do at that time. You listen and play — however active or quiet. This can be a time of discovery as you focus attention on one child. Burton L. White, a Harvard educational psychologist, says, "The key seems to be the time that attentive, responsive parents spend with their children – parents who are on hand and enthusiastic, whether their youngsters want help, comfort, or simply a chance to share discoveries."

I want to hear your comments or concerns

Copyright © 2003 John F. Yeaman