Why Kids Misbehave: And What to Do About It
As a parent, I’m always looking for ways to improve. I love thinking about parenting and coming to a better understanding of kids and parents in both theoretical and practical ways, so that I can be the best that I can be for my kids.
In many of the parenting books and course I’ve learned from, I have noticed similar concepts that I believe ring true—though they are often presented in different ways. One of these ideas is that kids have certain needs that can be easily overlooked, and misbehavior comes from those unmet needs.
While kids’ needs can be described in many different ways, I think it simplifies down to these three things: attention, power, and fun. These needs are not physical needs for survival, of course, but social and emotional needs that can be nearly as important for positive and healthy development.
These needs can come from either positive or negative sources. If a child cannot get his or her needs met through positive sources, he or she will usually resort to negative sources. Each need can also be sought to excess by a child. Human nature often leads us to seek our own interests above those of others, and children will naturally demand more of these things (attention, power, and fun) than they truly need. For example, kids do need attention to a certain degree, but they don’t need to be the center of attention at all times. When they demand such a thing, and parents give it to them, this is just as harmful as if they hadn’t had their needs met at all. The goal is to find a healthy balance.
Attention can come in the forms of love, affection, praise, encouragement, connection, conversation, and interaction. It can also come in the form of a child always being the center of attention (as previously mentioned), being rebuked or lectured or punished, or being a source of distress for their parents. If a child feels unseen, he or she may resort to misbehaviors in an effort to gain some form of attention. Rebellious kids are often those who lack appropriate attention—or have been given far too much of it in the form of permissive parenting.
Power can come from children feeling they have some level of control over their lives, that their opinions matter, and that they are contributing to their family. It can come from having the ability and freedom to make appropriate choices, and opportunities to help others. Children feel they have power when they feel importance, significance, purpose, and security. Power and attention can be closely linked, since children who are given enough positive attention are more likely to feel that they matter. Unfortunately, power also has plenty of negative sources, such as parental anger, excessive control, dishonoring or disrespecting others, and general bratty behavior. Kids who feel insecure and insignificant may resort to misbehaviors in order to feel more powerful. When adults or others react with anger or hurt, kids know that they do in fact have power to affect others. This is a classic illustration of how bullies are made!
Fun can come from exploration, silliness, play, laughter, smiles, learning, friendship, social interaction, and various forms of entertainment. When taken too far, however, fun can become more important than being kind, safe, and responsible. When that happens, children may become destructive, violent, disruptive, teasing, or antagonizing. They also are likely to avoid responsibilities in favor of more enjoyable activities. This can lead to a lack of purpose and significance (which ultimately are a part of their need for power), and they are likely to end up feeling bored rather than content and joyful. Kids whose need for fun isn’t met in positive ways will tend to feel bored, and misbehavior often ensues. On a deeper level, a lack of fun in life—that sense of joy we all need—can also lead to depression and withdrawal from others.
Misbehavior comes in many forms. One of the more general forms I think of is under the very big umbrella of “defiance.” Defiance may take the form of tantrums in younger kids—which are a multi-faceted issue, and not entirely misbehavior, to be fair. Defiance can also show itself as bad attitude and disrespect, deliberate disobedience, and breaking the rules.
Whatever form it takes, defiance typically comes from one of two sources: 1) kids not getting something that they want, or 2) kids having to do something that they don’t want to do. Circling back, kids are defiant when they feel they are lacking in one of those basic needs of attention, power, or fun. They want something—attention, or power, or fun—and they are upset that they can’t have it. Or, they have to do something that they feel is getting in the way of them seeking something else they prefer—again, it’s usually some form of attention, power, or fun. Whether or not those feelings are justified is another matter, and that’s where parents step in.
As parents, it is our job to meet our children’s needs to the best of our ability. But it is also our job to teach them balance—to know where their needs end and their wants begin, and to learn the importance of respect and responsibility. As parents, we must teach our children that they should care for and value others. It cannot be all about them. As we meet their needs with love and care, they come to believe in their inherent value as human beings and children of God. We must balance that with the teaching that others carry that same value.
So how do we do that?
I certainly don’t have all the answers. What I do have are some tools that are working well for me. They include empathy, choosing your battles, staying calm, and maintaining boundaries.
Empathy means that I try to look at my children and their behavior through their eyes. I try to remember these needs that they have, and how their misbehaviors are a reflection of them either not having those needs met, or trying to get more of those things than they really need. Both are human nature, and need to be addressed appropriately. Either I need to give them more of what they need, or I need to help them learn balance. In both cases, I can act with a good attitude, knowing that my job as a parent is a privilege, not a burden. I get to love these kids and care for them and teach them—what a gift!
Choosing your battles is such a practical tool for parenting, because in the everyday “trenches” of life, it can easily become overwhelming to try to do all of the things, and do them well. If I constantly question whether every small parenting choice is the right one, I will lose my mind. Instead, I try to focus on the big picture. I make frequent judgement calls on whether any given behavior is truly needing of correction, or if I can let it go. Usually, unless something is glaringly breaking our family rules, I try to let it go! It’s not often worth the energy otherwise. (Our family rules, for those that may wonder, are at the bottom of this post.)
Staying calm is probably one of the most effective parenting tools I know of—and also one of the hardest to do. When we stay calm, our kids can’t get satisfaction from negative sources of attention, power, or fun from us. Being concise and unruffled in discipline takes away the reward they seek. They don’t get a big dose of attention, or feel powerful by causing us to lose our temper, or relieve boredom by stirring the pot—because as far as they can tell, we simply aren’t affected much by what they did. Instead, we calmly enforce our boundaries and they are the only ones affected by the consequences of their actions.
Of course this is easier said than done! Our kids have a way of getting under our skin like no other. They are with us day in and day out, and that alone can be exhausting. Add in the human element of everyone being imperfect, and children being not-yet-fully-developed, and it can be quite impossible to achieve total parental serenity. That being said, we can try our best! Staying calm in the face of constant demands, messes, irritations, misbehavior, and defiance is a challenge, no doubt. It takes discipline, will-power, refueling and self-care breaks, and in my opinion, above all it takes supernatural assistance. Asking the Holy Spirit to help us stay calm as parents is one of the best things we can do, because at least for me, it usually doesn’t feel possible in my own power. And even with help, we will still mess up. That’s okay. We give ourselves grace, and try again.
Which brings me to my final parenting tool I’d like to share today, maintaining boundaries. This is absolutely vital to good parenting. I’m not sure parenting can really even be called parenting without this factor! Maintaining boundaries is really what discipline is all about. It’s not about controlling what our kids do, it’s about controlling what we do when our kids do what they do. In other words, we can’t control others, but we can control how we react to others. Maintaining boundaries with our kids means that we have rules, and when they are broken, we use appropriate ways to correct our kids and enforce the rules.
There are so many different approaches to maintaining boundaries, and certainly not all of them good. But that being said, I’m not so sure that there’s only one “right” way, either. Generally, I believe discipline should be as gentle, respectful, and loving as possible rather than harsh, harmful, or spiteful. I think consequences works better when they make sense—they’re related to the misbehavior and reasonable, or at the very least they follow a pre-established formula, such as “hitting leads to a time-out.”
Two simple options for consequences are time-outs and taking away privileges, and both can be done without physically harming, threatening, yelling, disrespecting, or emotionally scarring our children (as long as we stay calm!). It can be as simple as offering a choice: either they can follow the rule, or they can face the consequence. It’s not an emotional transaction, it’s just a matter of fact.
When I use all of these parenting tools well, I find the results are great. My struggle is always to use them in the first place! It can be so easy to forget that our kids have needs and that parenting is a privilege. It can be so easy to lapse into acting like children ourselves—wanting others to give us exactly what we want, when we want it, or else we lose it and throw an adult tantrum. We sometimes expect our kids to make things easy or convenient for us, when in reality, that’s not their job! Kids will be kids, and truly, they should be. There is time for adulting later. But for us, as parents, that time is now. Being a parent means we are the adult. We must take the high road, and do our best to care for our children in ways that will help them become healthy people who add positive things to the world.
For the curious… our Family Rules are:
- Love God
- Love Others
- Be Safe
- Be Kind
- Be Responsible