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6 Reasons Kid Misbehave and How to Respond

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Updated on Jan 15, 2014

Four-year-old Pedro sits on the floor watching his mother puttering away on her laptop. Suddenly, Pedro picks up the box of cars he’s playing with and dumps it on the floor.

Three-year-old Beth is playing on the playground, and her father is looking at his watch. “One more minute until it’s time to go home!” he calls. Beth replies, “Okay, Daddy.” One minute later, she completely ignores her father’s calls to come home and runs the other  direction.

Six-year-old Robby wants to pour his own glass of milk. “That’s a grown-up job,” his mother says, and pours it herself. Robby knocks her hand on purpose, and the milk splatters.

Sometimes it seems like parenting is just a journey from one misbehavior to another. According to Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, parents who view their child’s actions as wanton misbehavior are missing the point.

“Everything children do is an attempt to meet legitimate needs or express legitimate feelings,” she says. “Of course, not everything they want to do can be permitted. But the feelings and needs are always legitimate. Even if a child is actually trying to misbehave—for instance, when she looks right at you and dumps her cereal on the floor—that is a cry for help.” Seeing past the misbehavior to the emotional cause will help you address the misbehavior at the source, and also figure out if something you’re doing is contributing to your child’s poor reaction. So what could your kid be trying to communicate?

I Need Attention!

Sometimes, when you can tell that your child is misbehaving to get attention, your knee-jerk reaction might be to give her less attention. After all, you don’t want to reinforce the misbehavior, right?

How to respond: According to Markham, you should do the opposite. “If a child is misbehaving to get attention, then he clearly is not getting enough attention,” she explains. “Consider a parallel: if your child is acting up because he’s hungry, you don’t withhold food. You feed him. If your child is acting up because he is feeling disconnected from you, then you reconnect with him.”

Markham also suggests committing to a twenty-minute “special time” with each child, each day. That twenty minutes may be hard to squeeze out of your busy schedule, but it’ll fulfill your child’s need for attention before it becomes a behavior issue.

What Are You Gonna Do About It? 

Sometimes your child tests the rules to see what your reaction will be.  Kids are still trying to figure out how the world works, explains Markham. So if you tell her, “It’s time to go,” she’ll want to know whether you really mean it, and what you’ll do if she refuses.

How to respond: Keep your cool, stick to the rules that you laid out, and try your best not to turn the situation into a power struggle. Empathize with your child, and let her know you’re on her side, but consistently follow through with the boundaries you've set. When those boundaries are clear, she'll know what to expect from you, and won't act out just to see how you'll react.

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