Your second grader may have a hard time finding the right words to explain how he feels. That's why you should foster open communication with your child early on, according to clinical psychologist Erik Fisher. He says that if you punish misbehavior without looking at the deeper reasons, parents run the risk of teaching their children to shut down as they get older.

Having trouble getting the conversation rolling? For children about the age of seven, Fisher suggests striking a balance between giving your child a chance to talk, and knowing there will be consequences. For example, parents could say: “You know, I have noticed that you have been acting up a little more recently, and I know that when I was little, I used to do “X” when I felt “Y” about a situation. I know that “Z” has been happening and wonder if you are feeling upset, guilty, afraid…(fill in the blank) about that situation. I think it would help if you could talk to me about what you are feeling instead of doing what you are doing. If you are not sure of what you are feeling, you can tell me that too. However, if you continue to choose to behave as you are, there will still be consequences.”

As a backdrop to this conversation, Fisher says it's helpful to know the main reasons why children around this age misbehave. In his book, The Art of Empowered Parenting (Ovation Books: 2007) Fisher makes a list of five common motivations. Here's what he says causes your little troublemaker to act out, and what he might really want:

  • To get attention.“Look at me!” your child shouts, throwing his ball directly into the mud puddle you warned him about. Fisher says wanting their parents undivided focus is a very common motivation for children to misbehave. Fisher says avoid yelling; negative attention is still attention! He says parents should explain to their children that they can't give them attention right now, state the reason, and set boundaries. For example: "If you want to be near me you can stand next to me, but if you interrupt me again that's your first warning." The key is to work through the behavior, not just punish for it.
  • To get a need met. Often this means a need for power, which children practice with a powerful word: no. “Clean your room,” you say. “No,” she responds. Fisher says parents should try to avoid getting into these power struggles and instead focus on gaining mutual respect. “Keep in mind that you do not want to crush your child's will, you want to elicit cooperation,” he says.
  • To get revenge. One of Fisher's recurring points is that children are people, too, and they act-out for the same reasons adults do. Revenge is no different; it's a desperate attempt to retain power that was lost when feelings are hurt. When a child tries to get revenge by using hurtful words against her parents, Fisher warns parents not to show their anger. “The most productive approach to this situation involves simply telling the child that you are sorry she feels hurt or upset, and that she must deal with the consequences if she breaks the rules,” Fisher says.
  •  To explore her sense of power. Children love to push buttons, especially when they are connected to people's tempers. How you respond when your child pushes your buttons greatly affects how you'll be treated in the future. Fisher says don't ignore the situation. “Discussing the child's need to manipulate power is often the best way to handle the situation,” Fisher says.
  • To express feelings she does not understand. Playing helpless is a way of dealing with confusion or perceived weakness, Fisher says. When your daughter whines, “I can't do it” she either wants you to do the math problem for her, or she wants sympathy for her overloaded brain. Fisher suggests parents neither rush in to do the work nor refuse help, but instead focus on encouraging the child to do their best work.

These behaviors often cannot be avoided, but understanding the reasons behind them may help you better handle the one thing you do have control over: your reaction.