Goals of misbehavior – Part 4: Inadequacy

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 little boy 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 because they are feeling inadequate, like they aren’t enough. Everyone feels down once in a while, even young children. Children might misbehave in situations where they aren’t feeling good about themselves. They may act out passively by withdrawing or avoiding, like refusing to complete a requested task or participate in an event. To cope with these feelings, many children show a hesitancy to engage because they don’t feel like they are good enough.

When children experience these feelings, they might feel unworthy or inferior to others. In order to avoid these uncomfortable feelings and the vulnerability that comes with them, children often act out by displaying withdrawal behaviors, a pessimistic attitude or by putting themselves down.

Children may not have the words or tools necessary to communicate or address these feelings and because no parent or caregiver wants to watch their child feel this way, these situations often make parents feel helpless or discouraged.

Managing behaviors stemming from feelings of inadequacy

Try these tips from Michigan State University Extension to manage behaviors stemming from feelings of inadequacy:

  • Be responsive and present. Presence and proximity are powerful when it comes to parenting children. When children know you are not only physically close, but that you show them you are present and responsive they feel safe and cared for and they can take advantage of opportunities to seek help or comfort. It’s also important for children to know that sometimes it’s OK to be alone and address uncomfortable feelings. If your child needs some space, instead of making it a punishment like at time-out, make it a retreat. Suggest they read a book, draw a picture, take a walk or do another activity they find soothing.
  • Build them up. Remind children why they are so special, important and loved. We don’t want to fill children up with false praise, but by noticing and noting the positives – character traits, behaviors and actions – we can help children develop a strong sense of worth. If we help create situations where our children can be successful, we can help them build feelings of self-worth. Try seeking out their expertise by trusting them with an important job or assignment. Help them regain their sense of success and value.
  • Accept them. No one is perfect, so when we set very high standards for children, they inevitably fail to measure up. Create an environment where it’s OK to fail, make mistakes and it is OK to not be perfect. It took Thomas Edison 1,000 failures to invent the light bulb; remind your child that it’s OK to fail because that is how you grow and learn.

Sometimes this requires a lot of patience on your part because it is tempting to swoop in and try to solve the problem. By giving your child an opportunity to recognize, feel and understand their emotions, you are preparing them to handle bigger situations they will face as they grow up.

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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