Children do not intentionally set out to misbehave. In fact, children usually misbehave for a reason. Obviously it does not do any good to ask the child why he/she acted up at “nana’s” house or screamed in his/her car seat for no apparent reason. However, by examining the child’s reaction, parents can often discover the real purpose for their youngster’s unruly behavior.
According to Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs (author of Children the Challenge), there are four reasons why children misbehave (if they are neither sick nor physically exhausted): for attention, power, revenge and to make their parents feel inadequate. Many adults might wonder why a child selects misbehavior over good behavior. That, according to Dr. Dreikurs, is the wrong question. A more useful one is, “What does the child hope to gain from their misbehavior. Why did the child do that?”
Parents should ask themselves how they feel, when their child act ups, to learn the reason behind the misbehavior. For example, when parents feel annoyed when their child disobeys, the youngster is probably seeking attention. Angry? Then power is the child’s ultimate goal. Feeling hurt by the child’s behavior? Then the youngster’s objective is revenge. Frustrated to the point of wanting to give up as a parent? Then the child believes the parents are inadequate and misbehaves to confirm this feeling. Parents can respond with more effective discipline when they know why their child is misbehaving.
Every healthy child demands attention. An important goal of parenting is to supply the attention needed to develop a healthy self-esteem. Dr. Dreikurs believes that over 90 percent of misbehavior is for attention. Denying attention in such situations usually stops the misbehavior. If a parent constantly has to cope with attention-getting behavior however, ignoring may not always be enough of a response. Being ignored may be the reason for the problem in the first place.
For children who require undue attention, the temptation for most parents is to scold, nag or coax. When parents remember that their child’s goal is to get attention (any attention), it is easy to see that scolding or nagging only encourages more misbehavior. In a child’s mind, the attention from an angry parent is better than no attention at all. If parents only notice their child’s mistakes, the youngster will make mistakes for attention. Obviously, the best way to direct our children to "good" behavior is to "catch them being good."
For the child seeking attention, use the two “I’s” of discipline: Ignore the behavior when possible, giving the child positive attention during pleasant times, or Isolate the child by using “timeout” when the child’s behavior is too extreme to be ignored.
Children are constantly trying to find out how powerful they are. Some youngsters believe they only count when they are running the show. Rather than joining the struggle, parents should take charge by acting instead of reasoning. When a toddler balks at taking a bath, a long discussion about the importance of cleanliness gives the youngster unreasonable power over their parents.
During power struggles, parents need to take kind, but firm, action. Talking does little good and only feeds into the power struggle. Parents must decide what they will do, not what it will take to make their child do it. Another way of avoiding power struggles is by turning the encounter into an advantage by giving the youngster limited choices. This gives the child a feeling of control: “Do you want eggs, waffles or cereal for breakfast?” “Would you like to set the table or clear it after dinner?” This way, whichever choice the child makes, it is the “right” answer.
Dealing with the mistaken goal of revenge takes patience. A child who hurts others, feels they have been hurt and they have to even the score. When a child is allowed to hurt others, they establish a painful cycle of relating to people through hurting and being hurt. To break this pattern, parents should never retaliate. Instead, try to build a friendship with the child while improving self-esteem. This can be easily done by placing the child in situations in which they cannot fail. When a child has a better opinion of himself/herself, he/she rarely misbehaves to seek revenge.
The feeling of inadequacy is an escape for the discouraged child. It is a lot easier to give up rather than try and fail again. Inadequate children brag, boast or fight, and usually are unwilling to try new things. Constant “put-downs” make these children feel even more worthless. They act with self-fulfilling prophecies. They will not try to do well at school if they think they are stupid. If they believe they are unpopular and cruel, they will often mistreat their peers. When children feel inadequate, parents have a difficult task: they must restore their faith in the child and encourage them by praising whatever successes they achieve. (No matter how small.) Arrange for small accomplishments and find opportunities to compliment them on their behavior. Remember, children are not miniature adults with bad judgment; they make mistakes because they are always learning.
When parents understand why their children misbehave, they will be more inclined to choose a discipline tool that will reduce the misconduct. If a pot is boiling over, clamping on a lid is not the best solution. To solve that problem, reduce or eliminate the heat under the pot. In a similar way, if parents can find and eliminate the source of a child’s misbehavior--the heat under the pot--they will have more success in reducing any behavior problems.