Goals of misbehavior – Part 2: Power

Why do children misbehave? To communicate? To control? To manipulate? This four-part series will describe the goals of misbehavior, what they mean and how you can effectively respond to them.

A young girl frowning

Why do children misbehave? Is it because they are being disobedient on purpose? Do they not know better? Are they not capable of following rules? Is it just to push your buttons? Are they pushing boundaries? Testing limits? Is it just fun?

Sometimes when children misbehave it feels personal, like your child is purposely doing something to you in order to make your life more difficult. In the hustle and bustle of family life, these acts of misconduct might feel like someone is adding fuel to the fire. Many parents do not understand what motivates their children to act this way, especially after they put so much effort into raising hardworking and respectful children. So, why then, do children misbehave?

Think about misbehavior as a method of communication, a child’s way of reaching out. Adults have a lot of practice in decoding their own feelings and have learned many different ways of managing and expressing those feelings. Young children are still learning these tools for communication so, instead of saying they are lonely or bored, toys are thrown. The behavior is negative or undesired, but the reasons behind it are not. It’s important to remember negative behavior does not make your child “bad.” There’s a difference between how your child behaves and their character. What they do is not who they are.

Understanding why children misbehave can be a crucial step in positive discipline. Knowing the why will help you figure out the how—how to respond. Just like it is important to recognize an infant’s specific cues indicating hunger, tiredness or overstimulation, it is important for parents and caregivers to recognize older children’s cues. These cues, often shown through actions instead of words, will tell you how to meet their immediate needs and help teach them positive and effective ways of expressing themselves. Children use behavior to communicate something to you and understanding their reasons behind their behavior can help you not only care for and nurture your child, but help teach them to regulate their own behavior.

One reason children misbehave is power. When children seek power through their behaviors, they are feeling like they don’t have any control. To get this need met, children behave in ways to make sure to try to exert their control. They scream “No!,” refuse to comply, or throw themselves on the ground when you ask them to put their shoes on.

Whether or not we choose to admit it, everyone wants power. Truthfully, this is not a bad thing. We often associate the word “power” with overbearing, manipulative actions often occurring at the expense of others. In the context of children, power means control.

Children do not yet have the skills and knowledge to have complete power over their lives, otherwise they’d be eating ice cream for dinner every night and wearing flip flops in a blizzard. Control over self is an intrinsic drive, a strong desire to make decisions and complete actions on our own. Take toddlers for instance; with “Me,” “No,” and “I do it!” as regular parts of their vocabulary, they are verbally expressing this desire for power. As children grow older, they find more direct ways of seeking out control.

Misbehavior for power usually pops up when children feel like they have very little control over what is happening around them. To make up for feeling powerless, children use their behavior to either demand control or simply take it. Examples of these behaviors include ignoring a request, pushing the limits or boundaries or outbursts of anger.

Parents often feel and show strong emotional reactions to displays of power-oriented misbehavior. These actions usually end up with parents feeling angry and they may feel a strong desire to punish the child or to fight back. It is very easy to react quickly to power struggles with strict punishment, scolding or yelling. This is a natural attempt to reassert your control.

Managing power-seeking behaviors

Oftentimes when children seek power through their misbehavior, we dig in and refuse to give it to them. Instead of focusing your energy on protecting your control over your child, try thinking about ways you can give them the power and control that they seek in appropriate and constructive ways.

Try these tips from the Michigan State University Extension to manage power-seeking behavior.

  • Make it a win-win. Give up the notion of “winning” these situations. When there’s a winner, there’s also a loser. Do we really want our children to lose, or do we want them to learn? Instead of a competition, think of these as opportunities for teamwork, collaboration and compromise. This is a great chance to teach your child valuable life skills, foster a healthy relationship with open communication and teach them self-control.
  • Bow out. A tug of war takes two participants. If you refuse to enter into a power struggle with your child, they’ll have no one to fight against. Instead of getting sucked into an argument or pushed into reacting, which effectively gives your child the power they are searching for, try these tips for avoiding power struggles.
  • Give them what they want. Children need opportunities to have control and make choices for themselves, so let them! When you share this power with children on your own terms, you can avoid power struggles. Let them have a vote in what to make for dinner, let them decide whether they want to clean their room or do their homework first. When children have control, they feel useful, valuable and yes, powerful.

When children initiate these power struggles they are seeking out a perfectly acceptable and understandable goal, they are just working towards that goal in the wrong way. When we engage in powers struggles, children get a sense of power from the outcome but they miss out on an opportunity to practice positive and effective life skills necessary for true power, like communication, compromise and collaboration. While we can’t let children have complete control over the decisions that affect them, as parents and caregivers it is our duty to help them learn how to use their power wisely.

Remember that misbehaviors are opportunities to listen to, care for and teach your child. Responding appropriately will help you model and reinforce positive behaviors patterns, strengthen your communication with your child and increase the quality of your interactions.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our impact report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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