Why Children Misbehave

You see Elizabeth chomping on another girl’s arm and think to yourself, “Why does she do that?” Bradley’s relentless doodling and Christina’s lying are also mysteries to you. You could ask them why they do it; but the truth is they probably couldn’t give you an answer. Although children usually know what happens after they misbehave, they don’t know why they misbehave. Their behavior therefore is best understood by looking at its consequences. The best two indicators are your reaction to what children do and children’s reactions to what you do. The next time your children misbehave, stop and ask yourself, “What do I feel right now?”–annoyed, mad, hurt, like giving up? You’d be surprised how often our reactions reinforce and encourage children’s misbehaviour. We do exactly what they want us to. The key then to turning children’s wrong behavior into right behavior is to change our own behavior.

At the bottom of all children’s misbehaviour is discouragement. Children feel they can’t behave in a good enough way, and the only way to have a place in the group is by misbehaving. Rudolf Dreikurs explained children’s misbehaviour in terms of four goals: attention, power, revenge, inadequacy.

1. If you find yourself feeling annoyed and making comments like, “You shouldn’t talk with your mouth open Susan,” or “Please stop pestering me, I’m talking to granddad on the phone,” your child wants attention. The best ways of dealing with inappropriate attention-seeking behavior is to make a big deal when their behaving well, and to ignore their pleas for attention, or, if that’s not possible, respond in a way they don’t expect.

2. Your daughter screams, “I’m not going to school and you can’t make me.” You yell back, “Oh yes I will.” You feel angry and provoked. Your daughter is looking for power. She only feels good when she’s in charge. Your bids at forcing her to attend school don’t work. She may go for a day or two and then start up again with her defiance, or go to school, but not try. Your best tact is to control your temper and ease out of the power struggle your daughter is trying to wrap you into.

3. Say you and your daughter have an ongoing power struggle and eventually your daughter gives in. You’ve won, and she has lost, but now she wants revenge–the third goal of misbehaviour. Your daughter wants to hurt you the same way you’ve hurt her. What can you do at this stage? Again, stay calm, and try to make your daughter feel like you’re on her side and you care about what happens to her.

4. You ask your daughter a question and she responds passively or doesn’t answer you at all. You feel like your relationship with her has gone down the drain. If you fail to resolve your war of revenge, your daughter may drop to the fourth stage of inadequacy. This is her way of saying, “Look I’m a failure; don’t expect me to do anything right anymore.” All you can do at this point is cut out all criticism and focus on your daughter’s strengths.

There is a way you can help children recognize which of the four goals they are aiming for. You start by asking Katie, “Why are you tilting your chair backwards during class”? Follow up by asking her if she’d like to know what you think the reason is. Finally, tell Katie what you think, “Are you doing it to get my attention?” The question format makes it easy for Katie to agree or disagree.

Another important distinction in understanding children’s misbehaviour is whether they are capable of behaving the right way. The golden rule here is, “Can she or can’t she?” and “Will she or won’t she?” Yes, Katie can stop tilting her chair backwards, but No, she doesn’t want to. Children who do not know how to behave the way you want them to, need training in how to behave appropriately.

Keep the points you’ve just read in mind as you look over the upcoming strategies. They’ll help you choose the best solution for your children’s problems.