Children misbehave. It’s what they do. A major part of their development involves trial-and-error behavioral experiments designed to learn about the world around them. When they knock over a cup of milk right after you warned them to be careful, they are watching and waiting for your response. When they yell “No” in response to your instructions, they are testing the limits of what behaviors are allowed.
Children also misbehave for a number of other reasons – they may be expressing their temperament and personality, communicating unmet needs, trying to cope with difficult emotions, seeking your attention, and even exhibiting chemical or neurological differences. We have to enter parenthood knowing that our children will misbehave from time to time (or ALL the time). We can prepare ourselves with strategies to turn those bad behaviors into teachable moments.
“The sign of great parenting is not the child’s behavior. The sign of truly great parenting is the parent’s behavior.” Andy Smithson
Keep in mind that every child is different and parenting can be very much a trial-and-error process as well. However, there are a few general tips that are helpful much of the time:
Easier said than done, right? Our child’s bad behavior can sometimes light a dormant volcano inside that we did not know existed. Every parent on earth gets angry and overreacts at times. The important point here is to try your best to manage your own emotions and keep them out of your response to your child. Bad behavior feeds on strong emotions. The more calmly and matter-of-factly you can respond, the easier it will be to de-escalate your child and create a teachable moment. If you are struggling with this step, it might be beneficial to seek help coping with your own emotions. Not only will this help you to respond more appropriately to your child, but also to model and teach good coping skills for them.
Clarify the Rules
It is never fair to punish someone for breaking a rule that was never explained. As adults, the rules may be obvious to us. However, you would be surprised how often children misunderstand or have no awareness of the rules. Make sure the rules are as clear as possible. Hang a list of rules in your home and discuss what they mean and why they exist. Help them make the connection between their behavior and the specific rule that was broken.
Children (and even teens) have an undeveloped brain that causes impulsivity. They act without thinking. It is so important to give a warning before using discipline, particularly for younger children or those with neurological differences who are more impulsive than their peers. Give them a chance to think about the behavior and correct it. This teaches responsibility and makes them aware that they always have choices, but those choices may have consequences.
Keep It Brief
Lengthy explanations and lectures will often go unheard. This is both related to your child’s short attention span (some shorter than others) and their brain’s difficulty processing information when emotions have taken over. To make matters worse, these long-winded responses will often be perceived as attention and may backfire by reinforcing the bad behaviors. It is always best to keep your response brief and to the point. Let them know that their behavior was not acceptable or a rule has been broken, remind them of the consequence, wait for the emotional storm to pass, and save discussions for a time when they are calm and ready to learn.
Use Selective Attention
If your child is doing something attention-seeking that is not harmful, this can be a helpful strategy. Actively ignore the behavior and let others around you know what you are doing. Give extra attention to others in the room who are behaving appropriately. When your child decides to stop for a moment or takes a step in the right direction, immediately give your attention back and shower it on!
When emotions are calm and your child is ready to listen, have a conversation about what went wrong. Identify the problem, a few other choices they could have made, possible outcomes, and determine a plan for next time. It can even be helpful to role-play the new choice. Watch carefully for times when your child makes a better choice and give them all the attention they deserve!
We all know that discipline is necessary but be sure to use it wisely. When this is your only parenting tool, you will find it to be disappointing in the end. Children care more about punishments and discipline when they have a strong foundation of praise, encouragement, support, and respect. The negative strategies do not work without the positive strategies.
When possible, choose consequences that fit the crime. If your child ignores your instructions to stop throwing balls in the house and eventually breaks a vase, he can help clean up the mess and use allowance money for repayment. Other helpful discipline ideas may include Time Out from attention, Time Out from a specific toy, extra chores, losing privileges, grounding, early bedtime, sitting out from an activity, and rehearsing a better choice as many times as needed.
Lindsay Asawa, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Missouri City Family Counseling in Sienna Plantation. She provides consultation and evaluations for all ages, parenting workshops, and business and school presentations. Dr. Asawa can be reached at (832) 844-5576 or email@example.com.