All kids misbehave. In fact, research shows that young children misbehave every three minutes. That’s like, what … 240 opportunities to exercise their power, test boundaries, and voice their autonomy (assuming your child is awake for about 12 hours/day)?!
When your child refuses to share … or hits their sibling … or breaks a family rule … does it become an occasion for shame and judgment of their character or is it an opportunity for them to learn and grow? As parents, the lens through which we view their behavior helps set the tone for how our children integrate their experiences.
Why Do Children Misbehave
Defiance is one of the most important safety skills your child can have. It is how they learn about the world. There are several ways that children appear to be misbehaving when, really, these behaviors are developmental passages that help them learn how to be human.
When our children are tantruming and experiencing big emotions, their nervous system is actually doing what it is designed to do - release the built-up stress and small hurts that create neurological overwhelm. At birth, a child’s brainstem (wired for survival) and limbic system (their emotional hub that detects threats) are "online", and therefore, it makes sense that they use these outlets to navigate their world. When they are hungry, tired, scared, overstimulated, or desiring connection, their limbic system recognizes the threat and the brainstem jumps into action causing them to move into fight, flight, or freeze.
Children push boundaries and explore their independence to learn about the workings of the world. As parents, we desire the bigger skills of impulse control, problem-solving, emotional regulation, conflict resolution, and understanding cause and effect, yet the cortical region responsible for these skills isn’t online until age three, and isn’t fully developed until their twenties! So, the road to these skills is actually through them by, yep, you guessed it, pushing boundaries and exploring independence. While our instincts are usually to suppress or stop misbehavior, it really serves as a conduit to the higher-level skills we desire.
What To Do With Misbehavior
We may find ourselves thinking that if our children just had willpower and good character then they would behave. But the truth is, their misbehavior is necessary to build the brain and learn life skills. When we realize that our children are innately “good”, then their mistakes become teaching moments rather than defining ones.
So, what do we do when our children misbehave? I can tell you that the answer is not in punishment. In punishing children for their behavior, we actually send them straight back to their reactive brain which prompts a protective response - tantrums, hitting you, running away, or suppressing their emotions. And while punishment such as time-outs or spanking may, over time, create submissive children who behave well in fear of what happens if they don’t, they fail to build the higher centers of the brain. Instead of learning big life skills, our children learn to lie, sneak, shrink themselves, or control others.
When we guide our children, creating a container for their behaviors to teach, rather than control, our children learn not only how to behave but they learn who they are.
Here are 4 ways to guide misbehavior
1. Understand Your Triggers
Our perception of our children and their behavior greatly affects how we see them, and ultimately, respond to them. When our colorful views, dreams, frustrations, and fears cloud our scenery, it becomes easy to impart judgments on our children. In doing so, we can shift blame for our emotions and insecurities onto our children’s nature.
So, in seeing ourselves more clearly, we can better see our children. What emotions does your child’s behavior bring up in you? What thoughts are beneath that emotion? And where does that thought come from? Usually, when we are triggered about something, it has little to do with the present moment - aka our child’s behavior - and everything to do with our past experiences.
2. Talk About Mistakes
If you asked your child, “Do you think mistakes are safe” what would they say? Many children may respond with a “no.” The question becomes, then, how do we teach our children that mistakes are allowed, common, and useful?
Some ways to do this are to model making mistakes yourself, speaking, and moving with self-compassion. Because our children tend to mirror those they are most secure with, it sets a solid foundation for their own self-compassion. When your child makes a mistake, notice your tone and body language. Are you communicating safety and understanding? We can certainly redirect our children, yet the delivery is important. When we keep in mind that mistakes and misbehavior serve as a platform for learning, we can also choose to connect with our children and teach in a way they are able to receive.
This may look like the following:
- Read books about your child’s uniqueness and about making mistakes.
- Talk about the brain science of mistakes (they help our brain grow!)
- Invite your child to practice daily tasks in different ways to show that there is more than one way to do something.
3. Set Boundaries
Boundaries are a form of love - love of self and love for another. In keeping our loving limits firm, consistent, and concrete, and in communicating them to our children respectfully, children feel safe as they learn about themselves and the world.
Figure out where you are a door and where you are a wall, meaning what are your hard and soft limits? For your hard limits, remain consistent 10/10 times so your child knows what to expect. When you are inconsistent, your children learn to push in case this is the one time you bend. Notice your sensations around your boundaries. The way you feel will help communicate which boundaries require adjustment.
Pushing against our rules is inevitable, but also useful for their developing brains. As we step into the role of the guide and lead our children through modeling, they begin to mirror our behaviors and learn how to set and stick to boundaries and respect the boundaries of others - all important components of social and emotional intelligence.
4. Teach Emotional Regulation
Studies have shown that what children need more of isn’t necessarily self-control but better self-regulation skills. As your child grows, their emotions become more complex and pronounced, and when they don’t know how to process these sensations, they return to the part of themselves that is designed to protect them (yep, we are talking about the brainstem and limbic system again).
Because a met need integrates, when we help our children notice, name, and regulate their emotions, their brain creates new pathways that connect the reactive and learning parts. This means that instead of dropping into their fight, flight, and freeze reflexes, they can choose effective calming strategies to communicate how they feel and understand how their behaviors affect others.
This takes time, and it requires help from a secure adult. Using a time-in is an effective way to co-regulate with your child to teach them about emotions and calming strategies via connection and play. During this process, you can lean into your child’s experience, validate the emotion underneath their behavior, and, once regulated, revisit what happened, how they felt, problem-solving for the future, and conflict resolution as needed.
Our children’s behavior is what they do, not who they are. When we can differentiate between the two, we are more effective in helping them navigate these experiences. And there is a benefit for us parents, too. In doing so, we put the joy back into parenting and we can celebrate our children as they are, meeting them where they are.
Misbehavior is the communication of an unmet need. We can lead our children instead of chasing their outbursts reactively. We can model for them the behavior we desire. And we can teach them one of the biggest lessons of all - one that most of us grown-ups are still learning - that we are love, no matter what we do.