Children behave the way they do for a reason, and rather than simply looking to punish the behavior, positive parenting is about looking for and addressing the reasons behind it. Below, I’m outlining 7 top reasons children misbehave and to address each one, so as to stop the misbehavior.
Remember, punishing a misbehavior may stop it temporarily, but it doesn’t solve the problem underneath, and often times, that problem will just manifest in other ways until it is addressed and solved.
Reason #1: Attention
It’s a simple fact that children need a lot of attention, yet we tend to get frustrated at them when they display certain behaviors “just to get our attention.” I love what Dr. Gordon Neufeld says about this: “If we see a child who wants attention, why wouldn’t we give it to him? Why wouldn’t we meet this basic need?”
In today’s buzzing and distracted world, we can spend the entire day in the presence of our children and still not give them much attention. It can be difficult to juggle all the balls we have in the air. It comes down to prioritizing. If you give most of your focused attention to your child when she misbehaves, that’s likely what she’ll keep doing. On the other hand, if you give plenty of positive, loving attention, there will be no need to misbehave to get it.
If you suspect attention is the reason behind your child’s misbehavior, try these tips:
1. Practice active listening whenever you can.
If your child is speaking to you, make a point to stop what you’re doing, make eye contact, and listen with the intent of understanding. If you cannot do so at that moment, say, “I’d love to hear what you have to say. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll give you my full attention.”
2. When your child is engaged in positive behaviors (is being helpful, kind, or cooperative), offer genuine, descriptive feedback. This is not the same as “good job.”
Descriptive feedback says:
- “I see you. I’m paying attention!”
- It means you notice the effort, not just the outcome.
- It’s “Thank you for being patient while I was on the phone. I see you were wanting to show me your drawing, but you waited. I appreciate that” rather than “good job not interrupting.”
Solve this by carving out one-on-one time with each child. It doesn’t have to be a really long amount of time; even a few minutes of focused attention a day can have a positive impact on behavior.
Reason #2: Independence /Control
Your toddler always responds with “NO!” Your preschooler refuses to leave the playground and a tantrum ensues. At some point after our little people realize they are separate beings from us, they start wanting to exert some independence. They want control over which cup they use, what they eat, what they wear.
This can be frazzling for parents who just want their children to drink out of the cup that’s clean without crying about it, or to eat their healthy meal, or to not wear the Batman costume to the grocery store…again!
So how can you stop misbehavior caused by a desire for control? Try these tips:
1. Know when to concede.
Does it matter if she must have the red cup? Will wearing that mismatched outfit cause a problem? Will it hurt to be washed off standing up rather than taking a full bath? Yes, sometimes children must go by our rules. Ultimately, we have the final say, but it’s good to give away control where you don’t really need it. Besides, these small doses of independence now is training ground for making bigger choices later.
2. Be clear about what is non-negotiable.
If you’re giving up control over the small things that don’t matter, your child will be more likely to comply when it does. Be firm during the times when there is no choice by not leaving it up for debate. There is only a power struggle when both people are pulling, so don’t pull. Instead, take action. If you asked your child to pick up his toys and he didn’t, calmly walk him over to the toys and point to them. If he still resists, try a when/then statement. “When these are picked up, then you can go play.”
3. Teach your child to say “no” respectfully.
It is important to retain the ability to say “no.” Your child will need to be comfortable saying “no” all through life, so teach her how to say it respectfully by offering a reason and an alternative. “I would prefer to clear the tablet after dinner than to set the table now because I'm in the middle of this game.” Of course, this takes time to teach, so be consistent and model this when you must say “no” as well.
Reason #3: Copying Others
He repeats a bad word he heard on television. She tries out the name-calling she heard from her BFF. If your child is copying the poor behavior of others, it’s time to be more stringent about what they’re exposed to. Monitor online activity, television shows, and music. Pay attention to their peer relationships.
You can’t have complete control over what they’re exposed to, especially once they’re older and in school. However, it is the parent’s responsibility to both protect them from as many negative influences as possible and teach them how to make good choices when those negative influences are present.
Here’s how to stop copied misbehavior:
1. Realize that some copying is normal.
It’s just part of growing up and learning. Stay consistent about your family rules and expectations.
2. Minimize exposure to the bad influence.
If one particular friend seems to be the bad influence, limit playdates or be the one to host them so you can keep a watchful eye.
3. Banish hurtful words.
If your child picks up negative language, set clear rules about appropriate language and help her express herself in a more appropriate way. “It hurts your brother’s feelings when you call him ‘stupid.’ Hurtful words are not allowed in our family. If you're upset with him, say ‘I’m upset with you right now, please leave me alone’ but don’t call him names.”
Reason #4: Connection
A strong connection is what gives us influence with our children. If that connection is strained, they are more likely to misbehave. Even if your bond has taken a downward turn and your child is acting out, you can stop the bad behavior.
Here are some ways you can stop the misbehavior and strengthen your relationship:
1. Make sure you’re speaking your child’s love language.
Their particular love language is what fills their tanks the fastest. Ensuring that your child feels deeply loved, speaking their language, will help your connection flourish.
2. Make time for play.
Go into their world for a while and let them direct the play. This kind of focused attention builds connection fast.
3. Find reasons to laugh together.
Watch a funny movie, tell jokes, dress up in goofy costumes, or play a silly game. Laughter brings us closer together and helps dissipate any negative feelings we may be carrying.
4. Check out these resources for other ways to connect with your children:
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