Why do children misbehave?

"Every behaviour is an attempt to fulfill an unmet or unknown need"

Children's behaviour can present challenges for parents and care givers alike at times.   This article addresses some of the reasons that children are apt to behave in ways that challenges us to ask "whats going on?"   If we can try to undersatnd misbehaviour as an attempt to fulfill needs, we are less likely to become emotional or frustrated with it.  That said, it is quite normal for children to present us with these challenges.  Children misbehave for a host of different reasons;

  • To Test Boundaries;     Children need to feel safe, loved and accepted.  Misbehaviour is the perfect vehicle for testing a parent or care-givers devotion and unconditional acceptance of a child and while it's frustrating, it is a normal and healthy part of development.    Setting limits and consistently having very clear and age appropriate rules is important.  It gives a child predictability and structure which builds confidence and self esteem.   
  • For acknowledgement;   For a child any attention is better than no attention.  If a child feels that he is not getting enough of his care-givers or parents time and atttention, or if he feels unloved he may feel it is necessary to up the ante and act out for recognition.  If we learn to pay attention and praise the behavioiur that we want to see more of, most likely, we will see more of it.  
  • Against unrealistic expectations;    Children grow in stages - physically, cognitively and emotionally.  Some-times a parent or care-givers expectations exceed a child's abilities.  e.g. asking a two year old child to tidy away all of his toys at the end of the day - he will most likely need some support to see this through to the end.    Having a clear understanding of developmental abilities can help us to set more reasonable expectation for our children. 
  • Being sick, tired, hungry or bored;    As adults, if we think of times when we are stretched, tired and hungry and are faced with yet another task, we can relate to how a child feels in this situation.  Optimally, children need up to twelve hours sleep nightly, healthy foods, lots of fresh air and plenty of opportunities to release energy through play and exercise.   Changes in behaviour are often indicators that a child is becoming unwell or is hungry or tired. 
  • To learn assertion skills;   Just as adults do, children move through developmental transitions.  Learning to assert oneself appropriately is a very important developmental task and a sign of maturation.  Some-times as parents and care-givers we might set rules and become entrenched, when actually particular rules were set at a time when they were vital to keep a child safe but now it is no longer necessasry.   It is important to listen to the reasons why a child decides to assert himself.  
  • When they are upset or dissappointed;   Much like adults, children react to emotional upheavals - bereavement, trauma, separation,  a lost toy, a fight at school etc.  However, depending on their age may lack the verbal skills and an awareness or understanding of what is happening for them.   As parents and care-givers, it is very important to acknowledge, accept and talk to children about what they are experiencing - give them the language for these emotions so that they can integrate this information and understand themselves better.
  • Because, some-times it works;    If a child has learned that whingeing, crying or throwing a tantrum works for him -gets him results, this behaviour has been re-inforced and is likely to re-occur.    The easiest answer is not to get sucked in.  Outline your expectations without becoming emotionally involved.  Give a warning (age appropriate) and if the behaviour persists, follow through with the consequence.  If you are trying to change challenging behaviour that has been re-inforced, be patient - it may get worse before it gets better.  
  • Mimicking role models;    Children do what children see. Children learn best how to behave by watching their role models - the people who are most consistently in their lives.  They also like to imitate or test out behaviour that they witness outside the home.  As parents or care-givers we cannot control what our children see other people doing.  However, we can be very clear about taking responsibility for our own mistakes around children - e.g.  "It was wrong of me to shout at you today".

The business of growing up is testing for children and keeps adults on their toes.    There is a lot to learn.  Be patient with your child and yourself.  Be genuine and generous with your praise and encouragement and above all - let your child know that even though you may dissaprove of some of his behaviour, you will love him and be there for him.  


County Kerry

Deanah McCormack

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