Misbehavior is Communication
The need to belong and feel significant is one common to all humans, and when these legitimate needs are not met, misbehavior occurs.
A child cannot understand “why” they feel unhappy, let alone articulate when these core needs are not being met. Their behavior is a symptom of something deeper going on inside of them. It’s important to remember that misbehavior is a way children communicate to parents and caregivers that something is not right in their world, and they need our help to make sense of it.
The Goal of Misguided Power
When a child feels out of control, they often respond by unconsciously setting the goal of misguided power. In an attempt to take back control, they may become aggressive, defiant, ignore instructions, resort to temper tantrums, talk back, lie, become disrespectful, command family members or friends, or may pout or cry when they cannot have their way.
Is it wrong that a child wants control? Is it wrong that they want autonomy and want to make choices for themselves? We would probably all agree that it is not only our right to be autonomous adults (in so far as our rights do not harm others). However, we understand that children are not developmentally ready to make all decisions for themselves. Adult guidance is necessary to keep them healthy, safe and to help them mature in the decision-making process.
Self-Evaluation and the Parent
As always, it’s important that we evaluate ourselves when addressing behavioral concerns with our children, asking, “Am I doing something to contribute to this behavior?” The reality is that while we can equip ourselves with tools and practices to help us navigate our child’s behavior, the only one we can control is ourselves. Self-reflection and asking a trusted partner or friend for their honest feedback are helpful steps in becoming the parent(s) we want to be.
It is important to examine your parenting style so that you can identify areas for growth. Although not always the case, many children who have the goal of misguided power are doing so in response to an authoritarian parenting style. Authoritarian parents offer little choice to their children, have high expectations, and often resort to lecturing or punishment as a means of motivating their child.
A Parent’s Response to Misguided Power
When a child becomes aggressive or defiant in an attempt to take control of a situation, it’s natural for parents to respond in kind: fighting with their child to take back control! We may become angry, yell or scold, resort to punishment, or dig our heels in and become more insistent in our demands. “You will not get away with this.” “You ARE going to do what I’m asking you to do!”
Parents may believe that they are helping their child to do better by forcing compliance and lecturing or punishing, but these reactions are counterproductive as they turn the situation into a power struggle and the misbehavior usually continues or becomes worse. Sometimes, the parent may try to avoid a power struggle by giving in. This is also counterproductive, as it reinforces misbehavior as a means of the child getting what they want. The goal is not for the parent to win (remember, for a parent to win, it means the child must lose), nor is it for the parent to lose.
How should a parent respond when a child acts out on this goal of misguided power?
- Step out of the power struggle. This may be a mental shift or a physical one (stepping back, taking a break, or giving space to your child).
- Take action without getting angry.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings. “You look upset. You don’t want to put the toys away.”
- Set firm, clear and loving boundaries.
- Show affection. A hug, a snuggle, or tickles can help your child reset and reestablish trust
- Speak less, act more. For example, “I am not going to continue reading this book until you stop screaming.” “The toys that aren’t cleaned up are going to be put away in the closet until next week.” Then follow through with what you’ve said. There’s no need to explain further or turn your boundary into a threat but getting emotional or repeating it over and over! Too many words, lengthy explanations and lectures confuse children.
- Simplify instructions so that they are easy for your child to understand. Some experts recommend “ten words or less”.
- Invite your child to contribute and cooperate instead of demanding. “I really need ….” “I’d love for you to help . . .” “Let’s do this together!”
- Build respect between you and your child: spend distraction-free time with them, show affection, say “I love you”, listen and empathize, play together, be available, create parent-child rituals, and establish and keep boundaries.
- Offer limited choices. “Would you like to clean your room now or after we read a story?” “Would you like to put the dog’s food in his bowl or help fill his water bowl?”
- Give your child responsibility and ownership where “Would you like to do the dusting every Saturday or would you like to water the plants?”
- Establish routines and create a chart that helps a child visualize the routines; involve your child in creating appropriate parts of the routines.
- Establish family rules. Involve your children in the process, if age-appropriate. Ask them what would be “fair” or “just”!
- Follow through on family rules, routines, expectations – firm and kind and consistent. If the routines, expectations and rules are constantly changing or not followed-through on, it is confusing to the child.
- Admit when you are wrong. If you find yourself tangled in a power struggle and need a reset, that’s OK. Let your child know that you need a reset. Apologize and let them know how you will handle the situation moving forward.