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Why do children misbehave and act out?

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Copyright Getty Images
By Amy McCready with TODAY Lifestyle
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Here are some common (and not so common) ways parents can deal with everything from tantrums to meltdowns.


Tantrums, whining, not listening, bedtime battles, power struggles. It's enough to drive parents crazy. So why do kids really misbehave? To answer that question, we must first understand the root cause of those annoying, frustrating, maddening behaviors.

Children (and adults, for that matter) have a need for belonging and significance. It's just the way we're wired. Belonging refers to the emotional connection and positive attention we need with one another. Significance refers to one's sense of autonomy, capability, and need to make contributions in meaningful ways. Think of "significance" as a form of possessing personal power. Without both of these innate needs being met, children will misbehave.

'I need more of your time and attention'

When a child doesn't feel a strong sense of belonging, she will act out in ways that she (mistakenly) believes will give her the emotional connection and positive attention she craves. For example, a toddler who isn't getting enough positive attention from mom and dad will act out with attention-seeking behaviors like whining, clinging or acting helpless. In the child's mind, she thinks, "if I cling or whine, that's a great way to get their attention." The toddler really wants positive attention and emotional connection from mom and dad, but will use negative attention-seeking behaviors to achieve her goal.

'I need some power of my own'

A young child may feel stripped of his significance because mom and dad do things for the child that he is capable of doing for himself. How can a child ever feel capable if mom/dad do everything for him? Or, perhaps they call all the shots and make all the decisions — robbing him of having some control over his life. These parent behaviors (which are natural and extremely common) strip the child of his sense of significance or personal power.

If his hard-wired need to feel capable, important and to have some say over his own life isn't met, he'll fight back with power-seeking behaviors like tantrums, talking back, not listening, and other power struggles occasionally leading to defiance in tweens and teens. The child really wants positive power, but the negative power-seeking behaviors are the toddlers' or teenagers' way of saying, "you aren't the boss of me! I need some power of my own!"

A child's misbehavior is a message that's telling us he needs to feel a greater sense of belonging and/or significance. It allows us to be proactive and implement strategies that will positively and proactively fill that need. However, without knowledge of WHY children misbehave and WHAT strategies to use to address and correct the misbehaviors, parents naturally rely on their instincts and some of the "popular" parenting techniques they've read or heard about. This can lead to an escalation of the misbehaviors and seldom corrects them permanently.

How do parents make misbehaviors worse?

Parents unknowingly encourage and escalate misbehavior in two ways — their personality and their choice of discipline strategies.

A parent's personality style can certainly escalate misbehaviors. For example, a parent with a "controlling" personality typically communicates with children by doing a lot of ordering, correcting and directing — "get your shoes on, brush your teeth, turn off the TV now — it's time to eat." No one likes to be told what to do, when or how to do it — including children! The more we order, correct and direct, the more likely our kids will "dig in their heels" and engage us in power struggles. It's their way of saying, "you're not the boss of me."

A parent with a "pleasing" personality style may invite helplessness from children because as soon as the child says "NO" to the request, the pleasing parent avoids conflict and does the task for the child.

The good news is that once parents understand their personality style and how it impacts behavior, they can choose more effective ways to communicate and to correct behavior.

Why 'time out' is a waste of time…

Time Out is one of the most widely used strategies for disciplining children. It is hailed by parents, pediatricians and many parenting experts as the go-to strategy for correcting behavior. "Time Out" is defined as sending a child to his room or to a designated Time Out spot for a period of time so the child can "think about his behavior" or "learn a lesson for next time." Sadly, these two goals are not accomplished with Time Out.

The nanny shows frequently use Time Out as the go-to discipline strategy for correcting behavior and week after week, you can watch the same scenario unfold ... parent or nanny takes the child to the "naughty chair" or time out spot — the child gets right up — parent/nanny escorts child back to the naughty chair — child gets right up. And the power struggle continues. The parent is determined to keep the child in Time Out. The child is determined to stay out of time out! It becomes the "parent's job" to monitor the child to be sure he remains in Time Out.

Beyond the age of three (or younger), children understand that they are "independent beings" and using "Time Out" only intensifies the power struggle. When we attempt to "control a child" by forcing him to stay in Time Out, he will instinctively fight back by refusing to stay in Time Out or throwing a tantrum to prove that "you're not the boss of me!"

Children who are less headstrong may do as they are told and remain in "Time Out" for the prescribed time, but it begs the question ... what are they learning from this punishment? Are they sitting in "Time Out" thinking about their misbehavior and about how they'll make a better choice next time? Probably not! Most likely they are brooding over how unfair Mom or Dad are for sending them to "Time Out"! Perhaps they are planning their revenge on the sibling that got them in trouble!

Most often, Time Out becomes a battle of wills between parent and child. Most importantly, it doesn't teach the child to make a better choice in the future which is what we are ultimately after in the first place.

What can we do instead?

There are many Positive Parenting Solutions strategies that we teach to correct behavior that are more effective than Time Out.

One of the strategies we recommend is the use of EFFECTIVE consequences. An effective consequence is one in which the child learns to make a better choice for the future AND the parent isn't the bad guy!

The 5 R's

For consequences to do their job — to teach our kids and keep you from being the bad guy, they should include the 5 R's:


R: Respectful — Our goal is not to make the child suffer — but to have him learn to make a better choice in the future. When parents inflict blame, shame or pain as part of a "punishment", the child is focused on "self-protection," not learning for the future. An effective consequence is respectful to the child.

R: Related to the Misbehavior — For children to learn for the future, the consequence has to "make sense" to the child and should be related to the misbehavior. For example, the consequence for throwing puzzle pieces around the room is to lose the privilege of playing with the puzzle for the day. The consequence for not turning off the video game when asked is to lose video/gaming privileges for the day/week.

R: Reasonable in duration based on the child's age.

R: Revealed in Advance: The consequence must be revealed to the child IN ADVANCE so he can make a choice between the appropriate behavior and the consequence. Unless he knows ahead of time what the consequence will be, the parent will become the "bad guy."

R: Repeated Back to You: To ensure that the child is perfectly clear on what's expected and the consequence for not following your rule, ask him to repeat it back to you. For example, "Just so we're on the same page, can you repeat back to me our rule for turning off the video game when asked and the consequence if you choose not to do that?" Once the child repeats it back to you — you have a verbal agreement! (For young children — use very simple language, but as long as they are verbal — they can repeat back to you.)


Put the monkey where it belongs!

Now the monkey is on the child's back — not yours. He knows the rule; he knows the consequence for not following the rule and it's up to him. He can choose the appropriate behavior or he can choose the consequence.

If you follow the process of the 5 R's, your child will most likely make the appropriate choice. If not, that's fine too — it will be a learning experience for him. No need to rant and rave and offer a lot of "I told you so's" — that only escalates a power struggle and boom … you're the bad guy again!

And, don't give in! Instead, very calmly say, "I see you choose to lose your video/gaming privileges for the day. You'll have a chance to try again tomorrow."

Experiencing consequences (if they include the 5 R's) is a wonderful way for kids to learn to make better choices in the future, and everyone can feel good about the process.

Amy McCready is an author, parenting expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. For more free training on consequences and other Positive Parenting Solutions strategies, visit and become a fan of Positive Parenting Solutions on Facebook.

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