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Kids' Behavior Decoded

I received a text from a client the other day: “Why can’t Liam just put his clothes on in the morning? It would take him three minutes and instead it’s as though he’s trying to start World War III every single morning in our house!”

It can feel as though our children are intentionally trying to drive us mad. Why else would they choose to pick a fight over doing something as simple as getting dressed?

Why? Because they are kids. And kids don’t always think logically, like we do. (Do we?)

As parents, we often focus solely on our kids' behavior, without understanding the simple reasons or underlying beliefs that drive these behaviors. But what if I told you that addressing those beliefs can improve your effectiveness in dealing with the behavior?

When our babies scream, we check to see if they’re hungry or dirty or tired. We try to figure out what they need, because they can’t tell us. Then they learn to walk and talk. For so many of us, that same screaming—often replaced by other less-than-fantastic behaviors—now evokes a completely different reaction. We wonder how we ended up with such a needy child or one with such a strong-willed temperament or one who is simply manipulative. We assume that children are “being bad” or “wrong.”

And they wonder where their caring, attentive parents went.

 a child acting out with frustration

Make a Moment

Misbehavior is very often a clue to a child’s “hidden belief.” Here are three of the most common beliefs children might have:

Rather than . . .

“Why does homework have to be such a fight? You are going to sit down and do it right now!” An oppositional child might believe that being in control and being the boss is the only way they can feel belonging or worthiness. When you get angry and controlling in return, you can imagine how the behavior is going to intensify.

“C’mon let’s get this homework done together. Here, I’ll write out the first problem.” A needy child might have the belief that they only count (belong) when they are being noticed or you’re busy with them. And we all know how tiring that gets!

“Fine, don’t do your work.” Sometimes when kids give up or just want to be left alone, it’s a sign that they’re feeling helpless or unable. It’s tempting to either jump in and do it for them or simply give up.

Understanding the coded message behind the behavior allows you to employ empowering responses:

Try . . .

“It’s up to you if you want time on your video game. Remember we agreed that homework comes first.” Limited choices (to do the homework, or not, in this case), mutually agreed upon in advance, can empower a child looking for personal power. Not fighting and not giving in, deciding ahead of time what you will do, and working on mutual respect help too.

“I care about you so much. Oh, look at the calendar: our special time is Thursday before bed. Finish up your math and then why don’t you pick out a book or a game you’d like to do with me on Thursday.” Being clear about what you would like to happen can help a child who wants to be noticed. Special time is useful for ensuring they’re feeling connected. And having faith that they can deal with their feelings (rather than fixing or rescuing) also comes in handy.

“How about if you pick a favorite book? You read two pages and then I’ll read two pages.” For a child who is retreating or giving up, encouraging a positive attempt, no matter how small, is a great first step to help them feel capable. You can try showing faith in their abilities rather than doing something for them. Stopping criticism will also help.

Why It Works

Kids want to be easygoing, loving, and cooperative. They will do well if they can. Did you read that? It’s a particularly important tenet of parenting: kids want to do well. They want to please you and to make you proud. And when they can’t, (mis)behavior is very often their first choice for communication.

According to the work of psychotherapists Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, so much of challenging behavior can be linked back to a child’s hardwired emotional needs: to be heard, to feel capable, to feel independent, or to feel a sense of belonging. Behavior might be our children’s way of telling us that.

Imagine you spot a dog. He’s cute, so you smile. As you approach, though, he snarls and bares his teeth. Now he’s a mean dog, so you yell at him.

You ignore him and he starts barking louder. Once you walk past, you notice his leg is caught in a trap. Your heart softens. You feel compassion. You realize that the dog needs your help—just like children who may act out because they need something from us as parents or caregivers. When we ignore them, they get louder and hope we notice.

By understanding the root cause of a behavior, we can help with the problem—not just the symptom. We are now giving our children what they need emotionally to thrive and succeed in life. Once we remove the trap, the dog is much more willing to cooperate. All of our sweet little living things need our grown-up help when they get stuck.

A summary of the blog

Like what you're reading? Grab my book, The MicroStep Method for the Overwhelmed Parent: Small Moments, Big Impact, for the entire collection of MicroSteps.


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