We’re great at calling out our kids for their misbehavior, but rarely do we take the time to look into what provoked that behavior in the first place. We just want it to change, and so we use some type of tactic (rewards or punishments) to try to get the behavior we want. Seldom does it work—at least in the long run. The behavior alone is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s what lies beneath the surface that needs our attention—and also where real change occurs.
We’re quick to say things like, “He’s just doing that to get my attention” or “She did that for no reason at all.” These statements indicate we do not completely understand behavior. First of all, why wouldn’t a child want your attention 24/7? When he is dismissed or yelled at for going after attention, he gets the message that he’s bad for wanting it.
There is always a reason for unacceptable behavior, whether we see it or not. You may never know what it was that provoked a particular behavior—maybe another child called your child a name in school and she’s taking it out on her little brother. The important thing to know is that there is always a reason.
Children are very impulsive and their emotions get the better of them a great deal of the time. We certainly say and do things we don’t mean, don’t we? Let’s give our kids that same leeway. They make lots of mistakes.
Here are some possible reasons for your child’s misbehavior:
- She feels misunderstood. Let’s say she has hit her little brother. You punish the hitting by yelling, blaming, sending her to her room, taking something away or threatening her. You ignore the fact that she was provoked: her brother took something of hers, or he represents competition for your time and attention. The hitting is not okay, but the more you react, the more she feels misunderstood.
- He feels unacceptable or unloved. A child’s greatest need is acceptance. When you try to get him to be different, to do something he just can’t, he thinks you don’t like him the way he is and so he behaves accordingly. You react punitively thinking the negative effect will eliminate the undesirable behavior, but the message to your child is that you don’t accept him the way he is.
- She feels left out, alone. Whether she’s been rejected by a friend, she’s left behind, she’s isolated in time out, or not invited to a birthday party, a young child will feel abandoned and very alone. Kids don’t go to other kids and ask, “Has that ever happened to you? How do you feel about it?” Instead they feel like they’re the only one in the world.
- He can’t meet up to your expectations. When you set the bar higher than your child can meet because you don’t understand how hard it may be for him to do what you want, you send the message that he’ll never be good enough.
- She thinks it’s unfair. You name it and kids think it’s not fair. You try to reason with her about why it is fair. By denying her feelings, she feels it all the more. Even though we all know life is not fair, kids just want their feelings to be heard.
- He feels stupid, less than, not as good as others. Whether your child knows he cannot do the math problems like his classmates, his sibling always seems to have an easier time of it, his peers choose someone else, feeling like a failure can lead to resentment and anger toward others.
Your job is to understand what emotions lie beneath the surface and not simply react to the tip, to only what you see. First connect with your child’s feelings whether or not you agree or think they are justified. Many times all you need to do is restate what they are trying to say. “You think what I said is unfair.” “You get sick and tired of your brother being around.” “It’s really hard to think you’re not as smart as the rest.” When you deny their feelings or try to explain your reasoning behind it—“You are just as smart as everyone else”—you add to the feelings of alone and misunderstood. When you connect, your child feels understood and accepted. Then she will be willing to see how she could have handled it differently.
Unacceptable behavior is your signal that your child is HAVING a problem, not BEING a problem. When we address only the behavior, usually with some form of punitive reaction, we add insult to injury. Why would she want to change her behavior if she is made to feel bad about herself? As Jane Nelson of Positive Parenting says, “If we want our children to do better, why do we think we must first make them feel worse?”
No matter how unjustified or wrong you think your child’s emotions are, that hurt, that desire, that feeling of being misunderstood are the feelings he has. He wants to know you understand what it feels like. When you can help him feel normal for having big feelings, he will feel okay be more willing to cooperate and learn.