Synergistic Parenting

Why do children misbehave?



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Children’s behavior — and misbehavior — is usually a response to causes. We can try to control misbehavior with punishment, but that drives it underground. Feelings that are driven underground may eventually erupt like a volcano. Figuring out the causes of misbehavior is not easy, so it is easier to punish. But spending time studying each of your children will pay off with less misbehavior and more of behavior that you want. As we focus on causes, we can be smarter and more effective parents. Best of all we can develop our children’s own inner discipline of positive behavior.

Your little Einstein
Children are consistently curious. If you support and channel their curiosity you may find yourself in a few years with your teen at a science fair or other creative event, depending on the direction of your child’s natural inclination — perhaps to science, music, painting, or sculpture. If you show interest and answer questions, you may share your child’s fascinating journey of exploration. So the child who reaches for packages on supermarket shelves, or twists to pick up and examine what you put in your grocery cart, or objects at home is just starting that exploration. Distracting, yes, but if you keep saying, no, stop, quit, you may hinder the development of your little Einstein or Martha Graham.

When driving, if you see a police car, do you drive differently — for a while? We can develop our children's inner discipline, so what they do is not determined by who may be watching.

Each child needs a place
The first cause of behavior is that each child wants and needs to assure his or her place in the family. Usually, the first child receives a great deal of attention from parents. When a second child comes, the first and only child must figure out how to share parents with an intruder. It is easier if the first child is old enough to reason,. Often the first child is younger and new at inventing how to cope with new situations. Be especially attentive to the first child’s behavior during the first weeks after the new baby comes home. Once in a while the first child tries to hurt the intruder. The first child doesn't understand why parents spend so much time caring for the new baby. Time spent paying attention to the first child assures that child you care and love that child just as much as the newcomer.

To assure each child of their place in the family, notice unique qualities of a child. Think of ways to relate to that uniqueness. Notice games they select, songs they like, TV they want, books they read to help you learn a child's uniqueness.

Frequent shows of affection such as a hug, ruffling hair, and others you think of assure the child of your care. We all need such reminders. And young children naturally can tell how sincere expressions are, so be sure to take the time and attention for sincere expressions of your caring, loving.

When two children first went to school, their mother, Susan, gave each a lipstick kiss on a piece of paper to carry in their pocket. She suggested that any time they felt homesick they could feel it or look at it to be reassured that they were loved.

Children's actions speak!
Children who cannot yet talk communicate clues in their behavior to tell what they want, if we will think and explore. Misbehavior may be messages.

Erin's child learning to feed himself in his high chair made a mess. His parents moved the high chair further away to keep the mess away, then he started throwing food. In our parenting session about why children misbehave, his parents learned that if they felt annoyed by the behavior, that suggested their child craved attention.

Some parents would punish the child, but these parents discussed why their son threw food and made a mess. They asked each other what their son might want. Perhaps he wanted to be closer to them. To find out, they moved his high chair between their chairs at the table. He stopped throwing food or making a mess! His throwing food when moved further away was a clue. Though he couldn't speak English, his parents figured out what he was "saying." He wanted to be close to them, not pushed away. If they had punished his behavior, that would have hurt his deepest feelings and craving for attention.

In most families with more than two children, each one develops their individual way to find their place in the family. Often, for example, one may be a helper, one a jokester, one mischievous. A child has a deep need to secure its own niche in the family. The child will usually try positive behaviors, but it they don’t work, then try misbehavior. Each child having his or her own secure and comfortable position in the family is critical. If you have more than one child, spend the time to think about each of your children. Remembering the youngster learning to feed himself, look for clues to how each child is trying to find their own niche in the family. Finding their place is a fundamental cause of behavior — and misbehavior.

Finding their place in the family results from their own desires and developing self, as well as their response to externals. Each child develops their individual self as a balance of personal pressures, such as extrovert/introvert. At the same time each develops a unique response to externals — family, peers, and the world. We as parents can provide safety for each one to develop their unique personal significance and balance — feeling worth and potential. We as parents in our listening and relating inspire their growing personal significance, and their comfort with others in their own comfort zone. As they interact with others, they grow in recognizing that some problems with others are within their unique self.

Twins and other multiple birth brothers or sisters can have unique relationships. When they are very young, learn the latest and most accurate information about how to treat them.

If you develop individual rituals, you assure the child of his or her importance to you and to the family. For one of our's it was touching his nose and at the same time whistling. At first the child thought his nose was responsible for the whistle, while later it was a treasured ritual for that child. Experiment with finding some action or words that become each child's ritual of being treasured by the family.

In addition develop family rituals. One important ritual is a family whistle, that is useful for finding children in crowded places, calling other family members when separated, and for a greeting on arriving home. On trips for one family a ritual was playing games with license plates. For one family it was political talk at family dinners. Family rituals help the children feel that their family is special and unique.

Family meals can bind a family together. With so many competing interests, it is hard to have family meals, but make them significant times. Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball star Jackie Robinson, wrote that after the hectic schedule of baseball, when he had a normal job, his priority was to be home at night for dinner. Be flexible; each may serve themselves at the cook top or be more formal, or make it a picnic. Use meals and rituals to make your family special and unique.

Sibling rivalry
Another common cause of misbehavior is sibling rivalry — brothers or sisters fighting. It is part of each child finding their niche in the family. They strike out at each other in words or actions. Each one is trying to develop that child's place in the family, and competing with others to secure and defend that place. When you spend time one-with-one with each child, you show them their place in your affection and concern. The section on team work offers suggestions about sibling rivalry.

A mother described frequent fights between her two sons who were of primary school age. When they fought over which would use their one computer, she used "I-statement" to tell them that they had to settle it between themselves without being physical. She then left the room. A few minutes later she returned to find one used the computer while the other played nearby. She tussled the hair of each to express her appreciation.

The mother told our group that she felt first of all that the problem of who will use the computer was between her two sons; they "owned" the problem. Therefore, it was their job to learn to resolve their differences. She did her best to set the scene to help them resolve it. When she left the room, she waited a few feet beyond the door to hear what they did. When she felt they were trying to negotiate, she quietly left to give them enough time. She told our parenting group she sometimes listened in on negotiations, lest the older son overwhelm the younger. What are the advantages of what this mother did? What benefits will her approach have as the boys grow?

Use that mother's approach to lead your children to recognize and resolve their problems and to negotiate, learning to avoid violence.


Write the advantages of helping brothers and sisters resolve their own problems. Are there advantages when parents resolve problems for their children?

I-messages and deciding who owns a problem are useful tools that you may want to consider frequently.

Personality differences
Another cause of behavior — and misbehavior — is personality differences. Some children are outgoing and interact easily with others. Some are quiet and seem to live within themselves. They interact less with others. Some children tend to be optimistic and others more pessimistic or suspicious of others. Some are more adventurous and others cautious. If you will spend time thinking about these and other personality differences of each child, you may uncover some causes of each child’s behavior and misbehavior.

Cutting words
Few behaviors of our children are worse than when they spit out, "I hate you," or similar words that cut to our heart. Some parents are deeply shocked by those words. Can we pause, perhaps take a deep breath, and ask what has just happened that pushed your child to such frustration? Can we remember when we said that to our parents? Can we remember saying similar things to best friends or partners or spouses? Words said in anger must be forgotten as quickly as possible. Words said in frustration express temporary anger and not deep, long-term feelings.

Tantrums scare and threaten us. We may feel helpless. They make us want to do something extreme or violent to stop it. There are some positive ways we can act.

One mother told that when her child was fretful, she held her child so that she could gently massage the child's back, which generally calmed the child. When a child is pre-verbal, perhaps such a massage is the best reaction to the fretful child.

One mother, as soon as she could calm the child after an early tantrum, so she could talk with the child, said very calmly, that was a tantrum; it was not any fun was it? Looking intently into the child's eyes while holding the child both firmly and lovingly, she repeated this theme in different words slowly and carefully, She wanted to repeat the word "tantrum" as often as possible while the outburst was a sharp, recent memory. Next time the child was on the verge of a tantrum, she held the child and looking into his eyes, said slowly and carefully, tantrum; you don't want a tantrum do you? The child had very few outbursts after that. Giving the tantrum a remembered name, then repeating it, and paying attention to the child seemed to cause a calming break in the developing storm.

Another parent when the child appeared about to lose her temper, touched her skin, and yanked the finger away, making the sound of sizzling, and acted as if the parent had just touched something very, very hot. Often it surprised the child, and stopped the growing tension.

After a child has a tantrum, quickly think about and write down the events that led to the tantrum. You want to analyze the causes, so you can think of ways to head one off in the future. If you can remember the events, you know one example of what pushed your child beyond what may be a short fuse. Some young children lose their temper more quickly and easily than others. So for this child try to find what lit the fuse.

Perhaps a tantrum happens after the child has tried to get our attention and felt ignored, as when the parents are very busy, tugging the child around, but only saying things like, keep up, or don't do this, or don't touch that.

There is no magic bullet or gimmick to stop tantrums or outbursts of crying. Think again about causes for behavior: what causes your child to feel utterly frustrated and pushed over the edge? Figure out causes and head off the storm—that is the healthy and wise approach. Sharp swats get rid of the parent's anger and frustrations, but shows the child is weak and that might rules. It drives a sword into the heart of love and trust.

The one essential response to tantrums is not to reward them. Some parents have tried bribing the child to stop them, but children may use an apparent tantrum to induce the bribe. Bribing is seldom a desirable response to any event.

I saw a young child stumble and fall, glance furtively up at the parent, and I could see she was wondering what she could get out of it, so tried crying. This parent picked up the child to caress and talk with her. She arranged to get a reward for falling. Be aware that children, as a survival tactic, will manipulate us parents, when they sense they can get something for it. On the other side we parents can pay attention to each child, have time alone with each child. Play with young children and share activities or games with older ones. By affirming each child and appreciating each child we reduce the probability of emotional outbursts and storms. And we are helping to develop a more secure and stable child in constructive relationship with us.

Shootings, pipe bombs, and other forms of violence intended to injure and hurt and kill has several causes and ways to respond.

We tend to think too much about misbehavior. Remind yourself and each child of positive things they did, and about the self you love. As one parent said, try to catch them doing good. Then support that good behavior. Each child needs persons who absolutely and thoughtfully care about that child, pay close attention to that child, and appreciate that child.

My dad suggested the three essential A's: accept, appreciate, and show affection. Accept each child's individuality. Appreciate each child's unique skills, gifts, and personality. And show affection; show unconditional love and appreciation for each child's being.

If you are working alone, consider writing a journal about behavior and misbehavior, in which you list what you tried and in what circumstance, how well it worked and why, and most importantly what you learned that you can use as you continue to learn better ways to parent. Review your journal, and you may find clues for current behavior and be rejoice at major problems in the past that you resolved.

One way to think specifically about misbehavior is a stair step of causes that I invite you to read and think about.

To learn more about behavior and misbehavior, click on Resources, and look into most of those listed. Check the chapter headings and the index at the back for what we have explored here. Many of these resources have further explanations and discussion and give examples of practicing the skills discussed.

Perhaps the most important parenting you can do is to spend time with each child, doing what that child wants to do. The activity is less important than your talking together, listening, sharing in what your child wants to do at that time. You listen and play — however active or quiet. This can be a time of exploring as you focus attention on one child. Burton L. White, a Harvard educational psychologist, says, "The key seems to be the time that attentive, responsive parents spend with their children – parents who are on hand and enthusiastic, whether their youngsters want help, comfort, or simply a chance to share discoveries." Listen deeply, seeking the feelings behind the words, as together you appreciate each other's feelings.

Copyright © 2002 John F. Yeaman







Promises to Keep by Sharon Robinson