Why Children Misbehave and What You Can Do About It
"Discouragement is at the root of all misbehavior."
Understanding why your children misbehave is not as difficult and daunting as it may first seem. Perhaps because we are living in a complicated world we are constantly looking for complicated answers, especially when it comes to examining human behavior. Yet Adler and Dreikurs knew that misbehaviors in children ought to be approached at the simplest level.
Your children misbehave because they have become discouraged about finding a positive place of significance within the family. Each child needs to feel he or she is an important and useful member of the family unit. Because this desire for significance is so important, children work to achieve this goal through either negative or positive means.
Think of your family as a sports team. Parents are the coaches, and each child is a supporting member of the team. What happens when a team member does not perform at a productive level? The team does not function as well as it might, just as your family fails to perform when each member is not helping to maintain it in productive and positive ways.
Children want to be important members of their family's team. They are looking to the "coaches" to tell them how to do that. Sadly, the coaches are falling down on the job because they are failing to provide the guidance children need to understand what is expected of them and how they must behave and perform if the family is to function smoothly and happily.
When parents do not behave like leaders, children become insecure within their small worlds. If they can boss mom and dad around, then whom will they look to for guidance and protection? Children know they are not capable of assuming the leadership role in the family. It makes them feel vulnerable and insecure when they do not have parents who will set limits and teach them how to behave.
Parents who are truly good leaders or, using our sports metaphor, good coaches, serve as models of positive behavior for their children. They set the standard by which the family will behave, not by brute strength or superior size, but by cooperation, contribution, and respect for all members of the family. These parents realize that allowing children to be useful is an antidote to all kinds of misbehavior.
It is also important to note that these parents are doing a service to the larger society at the same time they are helping their own families. They are teaching life principles that will affect other aspects of their children's lives as they marry, work, and raise children of their own.
They also know that it is up to parents to teach children what the positive behaviors should be and then to believe that their children are capable and responsible enough to rise to the occasion. When parents do not teach children how to behave, children learn to become "important" through negative means. Bad behavior gets your attention, doesn't it? Makes you angry? Hurts your feelings? Makes you feel like giving up?
Quite simply, children use misbehaviors to create for themselves a place of importance through power in relation to others. These traits do not go away by themselves. Children who successfully gain attention through power and negative behaviors will become more and more tyrannical as they get older. And these children will become more and more discouraged about belonging in any other way.
Once you accept this simple concept of "needing to feel important" as the foundation of your children's misbehavior, you are ready to do something about it. This idea should be foremost in your mind as you begin teaching your children to be courageous in facing the tasks of living with others in the community of the family, school, church, and larger society.
Children who work against others in their striving to feel important really do not feel capable of participating in respectful relationships. All they know is power and the struggle to dominate and control others. They have not learned about cooperation and contribution and the good feelings that come from these behaviors.
Your child is much more than his misbehavior, yet, as parents, you may find it much easier to see the child only in terms of what he does wrong. This is something you must work to overcome. You might begin by making a mental list of your children's good attributes to have ready for those times when you become discouraged and focus too intently on the misbehaviors.
If you take the ideas in this book to heart, you will change the way you do things and become more respectful of your children. As you teach them to become responsible members of the family, you will see the importance of relishing and encouraging your children's good behavior, not just dealing with the bad.
Many parents are surprised to learn that children blossom with sometimes just a few words of acknowledgment that they have done the right thing. In fact, rewarding them with toys, candy, and privileges is unnecessary and downright insulting to the child who is actually eager to help.
Learning New Parental Responses
Your parental responses to misbehavior often serve to aggravate and promote continued acting out by your children. This is another important idea that you must accept and learn from if you are to successfully change the dynamics within your family. The two most common responses parents use are the autocratic ("I am the boss") or the indulgent ("permissive pal"). Neither of these responses teaches children how to behave. You must see yourself as a teacher and guide who is there to share wisdom and implement constructive discipline so that children may learn. They need your leadership as much as they need your love.
It is a misconception to think that one can supplant the other. Children learn how to behave from the actions modeled by their parents, as well as by dealing with the consequences of their own behaviors. Consistent parental discipline actively shows children the relationship between behavior and consequences.
Let's look at an example of how this all plays out by comparing different parental responses to a bedtime situation:
Five-year-old Tiffany is finally in bed after what seems like hours of dawdling. She whined and complained when told it was bath time. Mom also had to tell her over and over again to brush her teeth and put on her pajamas. Then Tiffany had to have a drink of water, followed by another trip to the bathroom. After that, it was story time. When one story was finished, the child begged for another.
When mom finally said no and turned off the light, the child began to scream and cry. Mom left the room, but what now? She can hear Tiffany screaming and crying and fears she will work herself up into a full-blown tantrum.
A mom who is the "boss" will return to the room and threaten Tiffany with punishment such as a spanking or withdrawal of the privilege of riding her bike the next day. She will probably do this several times before Tiffany finally falls asleep.
A mom who is the "permissive pal" feels sorry for the child and will return to the room many times to cajole or bribe her with treats. She will pamper and pet the crying child and perhaps read her several more stories or bring her more water or snacks.
However, a respectful, responsible mother will let the child scream and cry without any response at all. This mother knows that she has to let the child experience the consequences of her own behavior. The child may continue to cry and scream, but mom can and should choose not to respond because she understands the child is not really in distress.
The wailing is a technique to gain power and attention and keep mom involved. She has other things to do, and the child needs to learn to appreciate that.
Otherwise, the child learns "it is all about me, and I only count when mom is serving me." This child learns that it is okay to disrupt her mother's time and create conflict as long as she gets the attention she wants.
An awareness of others (even moms!) as people who have needs of their own is not taught by a parent who is the "boss" or the "permissive pal." However, a respectful mother teaches her child that she is a person separate from her child and that she has things she must do. The child learns to help mom by going to bed and sleeping when it is time to do so.
Is it cruel to let a child scream and cry because she does not want to go to bed and get to sleep? Let's consider this. From the "boss" mother, Tiffany learns that "might makes right." From the "permissive pal" mother, the child learns that screaming and crying work wonders, and she will be rewarded with mom's attention no matter how bad her behavior becomes.
From the respectful, responsible mother, however, Tiffany learns that her misbehavior gets her nowhere, and she soon stops it on her own. It may take a couple of nights for Tiffany to learn this valuable lesson, but what are a couple of nights compared to a possible lifetime of screaming and abusing others to get what she wants?
This example brings up another important point that is also so simple that we often overlook it. The truth is that children will never respect parents who do not respect themselves. Parents need to understand how their own behavior can reflect a basic disrespect of themselves and their roles within the family.
In the example with Tiffany, the "permissive pal" mom is a doormat who sacrifices her own peace of mind and relaxation in order to respond to her child's tantrums and misbehaviors. Mother has a right to quiet time at the end of the day. She has a right to expect that her child will perform the necessary activities to get ready for bed, and that she will go to sleep on time and in a helpful manner.
Instead, this mother feels that she must cater to a spoiled child who will come to believe that "I am the center of the universe." Since the rest of the world will never treat her this way, this mother is actually doing a disservice to her child. But, just as important, she is also failing to respect herself and her own needs when she martyrs herself this way.
The "boss" mom is also doing a disservice, for she is failing to act and speak respectfully to her child. This is an essential component of effective parenting. Parents must respect their children, as well as themselves. An atmosphere of respect precludes participating in power struggles.
When the "boss" mom screams back and threatens Tiffany with dire punishments, all she does is give the child license to retaliate with more misbehavior until the situation escalates to unbearable levels. For a child to learn to respect others, the parent must treat the child respectfully and demonstrate self-respect (no doormats or tyrants allowed!). It is essential to remember at all times that your responses carry far more weight than just the reaction of the moment.
Your responses are road maps to adult behavior, and your children look at what you do as the model for what they should do (and most likely will do in the future). This is quite a burden for parents to bear. Our behavior is not just ours. It influences our children, as well.
Parents must take a cold, hard look at themselves if they wish their children's behaviors to improve. Are you a "permissive pal" or the "boss" with your own children?From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Eating, Sleeping, and Getting Up by Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D.. Copyright © 2002 by Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.