Goals of misbehavior – Part 3: Hurt feelings

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 mother kissing her son

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 because they are feeling hurt. Ever feel like a child was trying to get back at you for something, like you had a target on your back? Sometimes hurt feelings leads us to lash out at others, even the people who love us most of all.

Children lack detailed understanding of their emotions and what they mean. Combine that with undeveloped communication and social skills and children aren’t left with many options to manage feelings of hurt. So instead of addressing them, they throw their hurt onto others. These hurt behaviors will come across as personal attacks, whether direct or indirect.

Children might hurt others unprovoked with words or actions, damage belongings and act with an all-around unpleasantness. In these instances of hurt-motivated behavior, parents and caregivers often feel hurt, angry, and are often left wondering why the child wants to hurt them.

Managing behaviors stemming from hurt

Try these tips from Michigan State University Extension to address hurt-oriented behaviors from children:

  • Establish boundaries. Work on defining the boundaries of your relationship with your child. You can talk about the importance of respecting people and possessions and how to respectfully communicate with others.
  • Hug it out. Teach your child that feelings of hurt are a normal part of life. Teach your child that it is OK to express these negative emotions. Give them words to use and work together on ways of identifying and expressing these feelings. When you respond with empathy, your child feels heard and valued.
  • Be Switzerland. It might be tempting to strike back when your child hurts you, but instead work on keeping the peace. You will show your child how to acknowledge other’s feelings and manage tough situations with democracy and dignity.
  • Teach them to own up. The feelings behind these hurt behaviors are normal, but along with teaching how to express and deal with these feelings, it is important to also teach children to take responsibility for their actions. Whether it is cleaning up a mess they made, repairing or replacing possessions or a simple apology, help your child understand how their actions affect others. Teach them citizenship and respect.

Every parent wants their child to be happy and to build positive relationships with others. In order to do that, we need to teach them how to deal with the tough stuff. Hurt and pain are a part of life and teaching your child not only how to express these feelings, but why it is important and healthy can help turn frowns upside down and better prepare them to handle future hurts.

Remember that misbehaviors are opportunities to listen to, care for and teach your child. Responding appropriately will help you model and reinforce positive behavior 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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