Understanding the misbehavior of children can be quite challenging at times, as their misconduct can present as a mystery to not only their parents, but the reasoning behind their misconduct is often unknown to the children themselves. Evidence of this can be seen when children say, “I don’t know” in response to their parents who ask them, “Why did you do that?” I want to help you answer this very question by explaining the hidden messages that often lie beneath your child’s misconduct, and lend you a few suggestions as to what to do when certain misbehavior occurs.
All people, including children, are driven by a desire to belong and feel significant within their relationships, especially within their family relationships (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990; Nelson, 2006). As a result, children often misbehave because they want to feel important or belong, but they’re unaware that they’re doing this. Misbehavior occurs when children develop mistaken beliefs or incorrect ideas about how they can feel important or belong, and it’s often at the expense of other people’s feelings (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990; Nelson, 2006). Most misbehavior falls into one of four categories known as the Mistaken Goals of Misbehavior, and they include the following: 1) Undue Attention; 2) Misguided Power; 3) Revenge, and 4) Assumed Inadequacy (Nelson, 2006).
The Mistaken Goal of Undue Attention suggests that some children unconsciously believe that they’re not significant or that they don’t belong unless they keep adults busy with them (Nelson, 2006). An example of this is when your child annoys or irritates you by making constant noise after you have told him or her to stop numerous times. Truthfully, the hidden message beneath your son or daughter’s behavior is that “I want you to notice me” or “Involve me usefully.” One of the ways that you can respond to this is by touching them gently and looking at them while nodding your head “no” without saying a word. This practice is known as acting without speaking. Another response is giving your child a task to do so that their need for attention can be satisfied by being acknowledged for completing a task that is of help to you. Additionally, you can plan individual time with your child so that they have something to look forward to, and they can thus receive uninterrupted attention from you (Nelson, 2006).
Next is the Mistaken Goal of Misguided Power, which means that some children hold the mistaken belief that they are not significant or that they don’t belong unless they prove to others that they are the boss and that no one can control them (Nelson, 2006). An example of this is when you may tell your child to put his or her shoes on, and he or she responds with “No” or they take a long time to carry out the task. In situations such as this, you are likely to feel angry or defeated. Often, the coded message behind such behavior is that “I want a choice.” You can direct this need for power in a positive direction by giving your child limited options (i.e. “I need you to put your shoes on. You can wear the red shoes or the blue shoes, which ones do you want to wear?”) (Nelson, 2006).
The third Mistaken Goal is that of Revenge (Nelson, 2006). This goal is likely at play when a child damages a parent’s property or calls a parent a hurtful name. The coded message is that “I’m hurting, and I want you to feel my hurt” or “I need you to validate my feelings.” In order to address a scenario like this, a useful intervention is to acknowledge the hurt feelings (i.e. “Okay, given that you called me that name, I can tell you’re angry with me. Tell me what’s going on.”). It’s important that you don’t retaliate or hurt your child more at that moment by punishing them, and that reflective listening is used (i.e. “Okay, I hear you, and I see why that upset you.”) (Nelson, 2006).
The last Mistaken Goal is Assumed Inadequacy (Nelson, 2006). This goal is often present when a child stops putting forth effort into his or school work or says, “I just can’t do it.” The truth is that they’re often afraid of failing, so they simply forgo trying. The coded message behind their behavior is that “I need you not to give up on me.” These children are the most discouraged, and they need regular encouragement. In order to help your child if he or she presents this way, it is important that tasks are broken down into small achievable steps and that you acknowledge them for their effort and hard work. Additionally, it’s important that all criticism stops, and that you focus on your child’s strengths and not their weaknesses. For example, if a child has brought home all ‘F’s in the past, and he or she turns one of those ‘F’s into a ‘C’, it’s important that this is recognized by saying something like, “Oh my goodness, you brought that F up to a C! I’m so proud of you! This is a testament to how hard you’ve worked. Keep working hard and I know the other grades will improve too.”
In conclusion, I hope that I’ve been able to make your child’s misbehavior a lot less mysterious. It’s important to remember that when you catch your child exhibiting any of the characteristics that were described, the coded messages behind the behavior are often nobler than the surface behavior may lead you to believe. If you keep this in mind, it’ll help you to keep your anger in check and also to help you to get back to enjoying your children again.
Dreikurs, R. & Soltz, V. (1990). Children: The challenge. Plume: New York, NY.
Nelson, J. (2006). Positive discipline. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.