Have you ever had one of those moments when you just cannot take it anymore? Your child is breaking all the rules, won’t listen, and is just driving you completely crazy. Yep, I’ve been there too.
It can be really hard to know how to respond when you feel like you’ve done everything and nothing is working. Wouldn’t it be nice if they would just tell you what their problem is so you can fix it rather than act like a total brat?!
Here’s a secret – your child’s behavior is telling you something- you just have to tune in a little differently to hear them.
Why Do They Act Like This?!
The truth is, children’s behavior can often seem confusing, chaotic, and just plain obnoxious. It might feel like their sole purpose in life is to cause trouble and make things difficult.
But I promise you, your sweet little guy or gal doesn’t wake up in the morning wondering what mischief they can cause today.
What we have to remember is that our littles are still pretty new to this world and they’re still learning and exploring and figuring out all the complexities that perhaps we don’t notice anymore.
Something that seems so simple and straightforward to us can seem utterly mind boggling to a young child. This is because our brains are fundamentally different than there’s.
We’ve had many more years to grow and develop and learn things. The human brain isn’t actually fully developed until somewhere around the age of 25 – crazy right?!
For our children, figuring out this world is much like if you or I were to travel to a foreign country very different from our own that we’ve never been to before. We wouldn’t know the language or the customs.
The food would be weird to us. People would likely act different than we are used to. We’d feel a bit lost and confused and maybe kind of overwhelmed with all then new things we need to know and remember.
The things that seem totally normal and logical to the locals might seem ridiculous or confusing to us.
Pair that with a child’s underdeveloped ability to reason and think logically or to regulate their emotions, and you can understand why your child might act out, even in situations that seem otherwise normal to us.
So then how do we help them? The answer is, learn how to speak their language.
When they are struggling (because kids have a hard time, they don’t give us a hard time), we need to read between the lines and figure out what their behavior is communicating to us.
There could be a million different specific reasons, but let’s focus on four that will help you be able to decipher all the rest.
They need a physical need met
Let’s start with the most obvious that most of us probably already know. One of the biggest reasons our kids start acting out is because there is a physical need not being met.
They are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (or maybe a combo of them all). This is often called H.A.L.T. because it’s important to stop and begin asking yourself questions when their behavior is getting out of control.
When was the last time they ate? Could they be hungry? If they’re old enough, ask them. Are they feeling angry? If so, what could have caused that? Can you help them find a solution for their anger?
Can you help them find a constructive outlet for their anger? Are they feeling lonely? Do they need some play time with a sibling or a friend?
Have you spent time with them today or have you been busy with cleaning and errands and other things? Did they sleep well last night? Have they had a nap? Do they need one?
These are all great questions to stop and consider when trying to understand your child’s behavior.
They need their power bucket filled
In our quest to meet all the demands of our daily adult lives, we often forget that our littlest family members are also people with a desire to be in control of their own lives and environments.
We’re often so busy jumping from one thing to the next that it can feel like a real drain to take the time to stop and let our child lead sometimes. But that’s exactly what they need.
Take a moment to think through a typical day in your home. How many little decisions are made by adults throughout the day? We decide when it’s time to get up and eat and get dressed and do the chores.
We often pick out our kids’ clothes and we decide when and how they’re going to get dressed – whether they want to or not. We choose what they can eat and when they can eat it.
We decide which activities they can do and for how long. We pick the shows they watch, the toys they play with, and generally most of everything that happens in their lives.
Imagine what it would be like for you if from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed every decision about your life was made for you regardless of what you thought about it and you had absolutely no say or control.
We probably wouldn’t like that very much. And our kids don’t either. They like to have a certain amount of control over their own lives and it only makes sense.
If they are acting out, it might because they feel too powerless and they are doing their best to gain some power back.
If this is the case, think about ways you can give them more age appropriate choices (power) throughout their day while still maintaining a level of parental control that keeps them safe and healthy.
Maybe let them pick out their own clothes or choose whether they’d like to play at the park or go for a walk.
Examine what’s happening with their behavior right now. Is there an element that you could give them power over in the current struggle?
Maybe they’re not ready to get dressed yet so you set a timer and make a deal that when the timer goes off they have to get dressed.
Or maybe they’re mad that you gave them the blue cup instead of the green one, so give them the green one if you can. It’s ok to give up a little bit of power to our kids.
It gives them the opportunity to learn how to manage it well and helps them learn how to take care of themselves.
They need their attention bucket filled
We touched on this a little with H.A.L.T., but let’s dive in a little deeper. As human beings, we’re designed to live in community. Not only do we crave socialization, our brains actually need it to survive.
That’s why prisoners locked in isolation often go crazy. It’s literal torture to not ever be able to communicate or just be around other humans.
While many of us, myself included, are total introverts and don’t need or want to interact with a lot of people, we still appreciate and value the connection of a few close friends or family. It’s just how we, as humans, were designed.
Our kids are no different. They crave connection and closeness with the people they care about most – you.
If you’re not taking the time to truly connect with your child, they may feel lonely and disconnected and they might show it by acting out. They aren’t trying to be a brat, they’re just trying to get your attention.
And they will fill their attention bucket one way or another – if they can’t get the positive attention they crave, they’ll settle for the negative attention that comes when they do things that make you feel angry.
After all, negative attention is better than no attention. So ask yourself, have you spent enough quality time with your child today? Are they needing some face time with you?
One way to make sure they always have their attention bucket filled is to intentionally schedule 10 or 15 minutes each day to spend quality one on one time with your child.
You let them choose the activity – which fills their power bucket – and you focus solely on them and what they want to do without any distractions or interruptions.
It’s amazing what this time will do for your relationship and for your child’s behavior!
They just don’t understand
Sometimes we do all the right things and they still just don’t do what they should. It’s in these moments when we’re most likely to lose our cool and yell or punish or just totally give up.
But before you go down that road, take a deep breath and a step back. Is it possible that they simply don’t understand or don’t remember the rules? What seems like common sense to us isn’t for them.
And rules that make sense to us, might not to them. Think through what it is that you’re expecting of them. Is it truly reasonable for their age and abilities?
Could you try saying it a different way or gently reminding them what the appropriate behavior is? Maybe they are struggling because there are just too many rules and they can’t keep track of them all.
Or maybe you’re being a little too strict or expecting too much. Remember that kids have a very short attention span and they tend to forget things a lot.
(That’s why you often have to repeat yourself 4,378,916 times before something gets done). Keep your rules simple and don’t have too many of them.
A few easy to remember and general family guidelines are better than 50 super specific and impossible to keep track of rules.
In our family the expectation is that everyone helps take care of our home and our belongings and we always respect and take care of each other. That basically covers all of the things we’d like to teach our kids.
Bonus: Before Responding To Misbehavior Ask This Question…
As you’re going through your mental checklist of all the things that might be going on to make your child act this way, there’s one more question you need to ask yourself. Did I contribute to this behavior in any way?
See, the thing is, that we often are quick to jump on the punishment bandwagon and lay all the blame for bad behavior on our child. After all, they are the ones acting like wild banshees, right?
But in reality, a lot of what they do and how they act is a product of their environment – meaning they pick up their behavior from us. Another question to ask yourself is: could this behavior have been prevented?
If your child does something they aren’t supposed to because you weren’t paying close enough attention, or because you didn’t put safeguards in place even though you knew you should have, or if you never explained to them that this behavior isn’t acceptable, then you can’t put all the blame on your child.
Sure, you can, and absolutely should, use this as a teaching moment – but you also have to accept your part in the problem.
Maybe you were distracted on your phone and your sweetie decided to decorate the walls – with permanent marker.
Or perhaps you forgot to close the door to the bathroom and now your precious cutie is covered in bright pink nail polish. Or maybe you just forgot to mention that playing catch with your new antique vase is not allowed.
Whatever the case may be, acknowledge that, even though your child does need to help correct their mistake, you also have to admit that you dropped the ball on this one, too, and help make it right without totally losing your crap.
Our kids are constantly communicating with us, whether we realize it or not. When they are acting out and not listening, they’re trying to tell us something. We just have to stop long enough to hear them.
They may have a physical need, they may want more power or attention, or they are trying to tell you they don’t understand what you want from them.
When we can slow down and really tune in to their needs, we can help them find an appropriate solution so that everyone can get back to enjoying their day!