As adults, we have been primed to move from our logical brain. Our children, however, move from their emotional hub. So it makes sense that they often don’t make sense to us. We are essentially speaking two different languages from two different intelligence centers.
Their immaturity stumps us. Their crying and meltdowns trigger us.
Their defiance and unwillingness to listen after we have asked ten times for them to do that thing we want them to do maddens us.
It can feel challenging to work with someone as inconsistent, explosive, and unpredictable as our children. But what if they weren’t as mysterious as we think?
Our children’s misbehavior is communication. It tells a story. When we learn to decode what is happening underneath the power struggles, big emotions, and clingy behavior, we connect with what our children really need and want from us, and the working relationship becomes so much smoother.
Here are five reasons our kids misbehave and some ideas on how to respond for a more peaceful, connected home.
5 Reasons Kids Misbehave And How To Respond
They want connection
You’ll often hear, “Oh he is just showing attention-seeking behavior!” as if needing attention is a bad thing, but really, feeling seen, heard, understood, and valued are basic human needs. We are biologically created to be near others, to be in relationships with others, and to connect. This is how we survive as individuals and as a society.
We all have emotional bank accounts. When our main attachments withdraw from it more than they fill it, we become on edge and defensive because our nervous system sees it as a threat. So when we command and demand more than we play; and we argue our rightness more than we listen; and when we redirect more than we connect, our children push back or shut down. You may also notice that during transitions such as after a move or after the arrival of a new sibling, your child may cling or whine more, or in some cases, even regress. Often, what they need isn’t punishment, which creates further dissonance, but some extra connection to soothe their nervous system, fill their bank account, and affirm that they are still at the top of your list.
How to respond:
Kids are bottomless connection pits. They can never get enough of you, especially our younger kiddos! So what do we do? Well, we meet the need. You may decide to create some sort of connection ritual each morning or evening, something they can count on happening every day with you. Research has shown that 10 minutes of daily child-led play is the number one tool for increased peace in the home. If play feels tricky for you, find mutually enjoyable activities like morning snuggles, digging in the garden, cooking, or doing puzzles. The key is to put all distractions away for this allotted time.
One of the best skills we can teach our children is how to ask for attention. The need in and of itself isn’t wrong or bad. Sometimes, however, in their immaturity, they don’t yet know how to identify the need and ask for it. Guide your child to notice what that feeling may feel like in her body and offer tools for expressing it such as tapping your elbow when you’re on a phone conversation or by simply saying, “I want some mama time right now.” Children are wired to get their needs met and in knowing what they CAN do to meet the need, they won’t have to figure it out on their own - ie hitting, jumping on the couch, or throwing something at your head!
They want power
Do you ever feel like the more you will something to happen and the more dug in you become to your agenda, the more your child becomes rooted in theirs? We call this the battle of the wills. While we may be wiser in years and experience, our children come into this world full, whole humans. As they move into toddlerhood and beyond, part of their developmental process is to explore their autonomy and independence through experimenting with what they want and don’t want and learning how to voice their needs and desires. And while we often have the goal of raising independent children, it becomes dicey when that clashes with our own needs and desires. See the conundrum? So the question becomes, how do we encourage their power without dampening our own?
How to respond:
There are many ways to respond to a power struggle. The first starts with you. Your circle of control is in your thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. So when you notice both you and your child tugging at the tug of war rope, ask yourself, “What is my goal here? Is my goal for control or to be right? If so, how can I create a new goal that focuses on my circle of control instead of my child’s? What action can I take here?”
Here are some other ways to offer your child some agency:
- Suggest age-appropriate choices.
- Give information or ask a question instead of commanding and demanding.
- Enroll your child in the decision-making process. “Which noodles would be best for dinner tonight? You choose!"
- Call out their power. “Look at you picking out your school clothes!”
- Announce transitions tangibly with a timer or a visual aid.
- Look for a compromise. “I see you want to stay outside and I want us to get ready for dinner. How can we both win here?”
- Make it safe for your child to say, “No.”
Bottom line, when children feel powerful, safe, and connected, they don’t have to fight you for that power.
They are testing boundaries
Children often test boundaries to understand cause and effect. This is how they learn about themselves and the guidelines that govern their family and the world at large. Most of the time, we perceive boundary-pushing as willful defiance, and yet it is an important part of their development. Another reason children are wired to test limits is to feel safe and secure. Children thrive off of predictability and their brain functions best with consistency. So, they will push to look for a consistent response.
How to respond:
One way to respond to boundary testing is to first get clear within yourself. What are your hard limits, and which are your soft? Communicate those firmly, clearly, and consistently. Additionally, if you can enroll your child in the process to make family agreements that are revealed ahead of time, your child will become more intrinsically motivated to cooperate.
Some ways to set boundaries include:
- Use an “AND” statement: “I see you want to play right now and I will play when I am done doing dishes. Let’s set a timer.”
- Validate feelings: “You wanted that block to build your tower? It’s okay to want the block. It’s not okay to take it from someone’s hands. I will help you give the block to your sister. What can we do while we wait?”
- State your willingness: “I see so many LEGOs. It is time to clean up. I am willing to help pick up the blue LEGOS. What are you willing to do?”
They are emotionally overwhelmed
Big emotions ooze out of our children daily. Shoot, some days it's an every minute basis. It can be a lot for our logical-dominant brain to process. Remember, however, that children move primarily from their emotional hub. And because children don’t fully understand how to express the emotional sensations swirling around in their bodies, they resort to primal behaviors: fight to get wants and needs met, run away/shut down. When children are emotionally overwhelmed, their emotions grow bigger than them and their impulses override all else. So they hit to show they are mad or they snatch the toy from their sibling or they toss the cup across the room because it had milk instead of juice.
How to respond:
One of the best ways to teach children about emotions is to practice. This can be done in small, playful, daily rituals like using feelings posters in a Calming Corner. Mimic the feeling faces, play games like Feelings Bingo or come together each night to share about when you felt different emotional sensations (like happy, sad, calm, and mad). Also, because our children catch more by watching what we do, we can model it. “I notice my fists and jaw are clenched. I am feeling frustrated by the mess.” It is then that you can demonstrate how to implement a calming strategy. “I am going to take a few breaths before I come up with a plan. Would you like to breathe with me?”
They lack a skill
Over the course of a child’s life, their executive functioning develops. Many of the challenging hard-to-parent behaviors we witness from our children stem from a lack of skills from a part of the brain that is still under construction. And while our two and four and six-year-olds seem so big (even our tweens and teens), their brain is still immature and won’t reach full maturity until the mid to late twenties. This means that they won’t always think ahead to potential consequences, empathize with their classmate, control their impulses, organize their school work, transition with ease, or handle disappointment. And because those skill pathways are still fairly new, the expectation of them can cause dysregulation - aka meltdowns and power struggles and “defiance.”
How to respond:
If, under your child’s behavior, you recognize a lagging skill, validate and set a boundary as needed. And when you are outside of the moment of dysregulation, teach the skill in small, playful ways (because research says that children learn best through play). For example, games like Telephone teach children impulse control and focus. Simone Says can teach body awareness, motor development, and giving/following direction. Red Light Green Light teaches impulse control, self-awareness, and self-management. Have fun and get creative!