Misbehavior is Communication
If you were following the blog the last couple weeks, feel free to skip over this brief introduction!
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.
“I don’t like you!” “You’re not my friend!”
If your child’s words or actions have left you feeling hurt, it is likely that their behavior stems from the misguided goal of revenge.
When a child feels unloved, unliked, lonely, wronged or hurt, they may retaliate by saying hurtful words, hurting a younger child or sibling (unprovoked), damaging property, getting even, or by becoming dismissive or unappreciative. As the saying goes, “Hurting people hurt people.” Older children may believe that since others think they are “bad” or “unlikeable”, they need to reinforce that belief as a way to protect themselves against further hurt.
Sometimes parents are indirect objects of a child’s desire for revenge. For example, they may have had a difficult day at school with a friendship or something an adult said to them. They may have had a conflict with a best friend or a sibling. Without the ability to process what is going on, the child often “vents” his or her emotions onto the parents.
Sometimes, parents are on the receiving end of revenge because they have done or said something that has hurt the child.
Parents typically feel like retaliating when their child hurts them – their desire for revenge seems like a rejection of the parents. In view of the child’s behavior, the parent may feel that, even though they love their child, they do not like them very much. If a parent retaliates (ignoring their child, putting emotional and physical distance between them, getting angry and showing displeasure in other ways), it begins a cycle of revenge-seeking. The child will view this negative behavior as a confirmation that they don’t belong, they are not significant and that they are justified in further revenge.
Remember, it’s the responsibility of the mature adult to rebuild the relationship. The child simply is not developmentally able to do so.
Rebuilding the Relationship
How do you respond to your child when they intentionally do something to hurt you? How do you rebuild the relationship with them?
- Speak with a neutral
- Validate their feelings. “I see that you are upset. It looks like you are upset because ________.” “How can I help you?” “What would help you?” “It looks like you are sad, can you tell me about it?” “I love you. Why don’t we take a break and try again later?”
- Be concise. Too many words are confusing to the child.
- Problem solve together instead of giving them solutions. When they are calm, ask them what they think should be a logical consequence when misbehavior occurs. Ask them for ideas on how to avoid the situation in the future.
- Get to the root of the matter – if your child is open to it, ask them questions to help you both understand what was really going on during the misbehavior. “Can you tell me more? What happened next? How did that make you feel?”
- Instead of a harsh correction, set boundaries but also affirm the child. “I love you, but I don’t like how you spoke to me.”
- Focus on your child’s good days, not bad days. Remember sweet moments with your child – these will help you better show your child compassion.
- Take responsibility for yourself – have you done something to hurt your child? Ask them. If you have inadvertently hurt them, apologize and let them know how you will do better in the future.
- Listen without problem solving – ask them what happened, then listen with empathy.
- Use calming techniques (for yourself and your child) such as taking deep breaths, counting to 10, going for a walk outdoors, jumping jacks, stretches
- Use logical consequences, not punishment. Have your child take responsibility for any damages done by his or her behavior: repairing broken items; purchasing replacements out of their allowance money; doing chores or selling items to pay for a replacement if they don’t have money; and If they made a mess, having them clean it up.
- Rebuild the relationship and establish trust by spending quality time with your child; find activities you enjoy doing together.
- Emphasize character and qualities that are important to you rather than achievements. “What did you enjoy most about your day?” rather than “What did you do today?” “Did you have fun at soccer practice?” rather than “Did you score a goal?”
- Give your child the opportunity to contribute positively and acknowledge their efforts to do so