Why do they act that way?



Understanding negative behavior—especially as a child gets older—helps in figuring out what they are really needing. © Thinkstock

When we keep asking “Why can’t you ever …? or “Why do you always …?” our children soon learn there’s no use trying to come up with an answer. These are loaded questions, meant to deliver accusations rather than gain information.

According to psychologist Rudolph Dreikurs the best way to understand the “why” of children’s misbehaviors is not by interrogating them but by learning more about their underlying needs. All behaviors are need-based, he says, and a misbehavior is simply a misguided and inappropriate way of trying to get a need met. Here are some examples:

1. “Mommy! Mommy! Now!” (child interrupts when you’re busy)—Some bad behaviors may result from a child simply trying to get love, recognition, or attention. When children feel lonely or ignored, even negative interaction may feel better than no interaction at all. As parents, we typically feel annoyed or bothered when children operate from this need. Our challenge is to help them find creative and healthy ways of getting the love and attention they crave.

2. “No! I want to do it this way!” (child ignores your instructions)—Bad behaviors also come from a child just wanting to have a say, to feel a sense of autonomy and power as a respected member of the family. Children with this need provoke feelings of threat, challenge or intimidation in us. It is important to avoid being drawn into power struggles, but offer opportunities for children to have age-appropriate responsibility and control.

3. “You’re mean! I hate you!” (child expresses anger inappropriately)—When children feel these first two basic needs aren’t being met, they may resort to direct or indirect retaliation. Children with this need often cause feelings of hurt in us. It is important to avoid getting into a revenge cycle, but to try to understand the distress behind an angry child’s reactions, to provide for cooling off periods, to pay more attention to needs one and two above, and to work at resolving underlying problems in the relationship. Meanwhile we make it clear that disrespectful behavior is not acceptable.

4. No response (child retreats and will not talk)—When all of the above inappropriate efforts appear to fail, children may react in indirect, non-verbal ways, or just avoid connecting with parents and others altogether, which tends to evoke feelings of helplessness in us and others. Effective parents avoid showing pity or being manipulated by this kind of response, but provide support, understanding and encouragement, along with offering healthy ways of repairing and restoring relationships.

Sometimes, when not in the heat of a conflict, it may help to ask a child, “When you were doing or saying …  (describe unacceptable words or behavior), could it be that you were feeling … (left out, disrespected, angry, discouraged, etc.)? How could we help you feel and behave better?”

It sure beats asking “why?” questions.

Harvey Yoder is a family counselor and teaches parenting and marriage classes at the Family Life Resource Center. Questions relating to family concerns can be addressed to FLRC, 273 Newman Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22801 or to [email protected] His blog can be followed at harvyoder.blogspot.com.


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