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3 Ways to Make Sense of Your Child’s Misbehavior

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When my boys were younger, my husband and I worked to be the kind of parents who get compliments for kids’ behavior. In church, in the grocery store, and at birthday parties, we loved to hear, “Your boys are so good!” We thought their good behavior was a sign that they were happy, well-adjusted, and respectful. But what about the not-so-good behaviors? What was the meaning behind those? Did we place any importance on understanding behavior that was “bad” or did we just try to eliminate it quickly?

Misbehavior is a form of communication. Understanding behavior is like learning part of your children’s language and that’s crucial to their development and the health of your relationship. Here are 3 things you can do to better understand your child’s misbehavior.

1. Resist labeling.

Labeling behavior in black and white terms of good or bad inadvertently labels your child as such. Changing a child’s self-image is much harder than changing a child’s singular behavior. Once a child has been labeled “bad,” he can come to believe that being bad is the only role he was meant to play in this world.

Often, parents immediately resort to labeling kids instead of observing and understanding behavior. Next time your child acts out, consider what’s going on in his or her environment—focus on the cause instead of just correction.

2. “Listen” to the behavior.

If we look at understanding behavior as a type of two-way communication, then it’s important to “hear” what our kids are trying to tell us. If your son, for example, were able to verbalize his need to feel safe by saying, “Mommy, I feel scared right now,” you likely wouldn’t tell him he was “bad” for feeling that way.

Sometimes behavior communicates a feeling a child can’t verbalize. The last thing any mom wants to do is give her child the feeling that “my mom just doesn’t understand me, and I can’t talk to her about my feelings.” It feels so good for both the parent and child when a behavior is understood and not mistaken as defiance or disrespect.

3. Adopt a team mentality.

Your kids should know that you’re for them, not against them. If they think you’re just there to judge and punish, some kids will respond by competing for control. When your son is throwing a tantrum or your daughter has slammed her bedroom door for the tenth time this week, instead of reacting with “it’s you versus me—let’s see who wins,” try changing your mindset. Ask, “How can we both come out feeling like we’ve won?” You don’t have to say those words to your child, especially if he or she is being disrespectful or literally wailing on the floor. But by changing your mental approach, you’ll react more calmly and alter the atmosphere.

Working on understanding behavior and responding appropriately likely will not end in the typical “Oh yeah? Watch me!” type of power struggle and that’s a great step in the right direction.

Here are some techniques to help kids calm down from tantrums or anxiety.

Remember to close the loop.

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents when we are responding to an unexpected behavior is forgetting to “close the loop.” We are fairly precise at noticing our children’s unwanted behaviors and we’re almost as adept at helping our children identify and learn what mistakes they’ve made. What we’re not always good at is the reconnection afterward. This last step helps our children feel secure enough to risk messing up once in a while. Even though your kids’ behavioral mistakes will have natural consequences, one consequence should not be the withholding of your love and relationship.

When have you realized your child’s misbehavior was actually a form of communication? What was your child trying to communicate?


Which of these words best describes how you most often feel when you’re angry: frustrated, misunderstood, or ignored?

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