Look For the Reason Behind Your Child’s Misbehavior

Take it from the experts, there’s a reason for every misbehavior, and when you figure out the reason, you’re more than halfway home to stopping it. Fine. So why is your child misbehaving?

Gathering Information Through Proactive Listening

Take your good-but-misbehaving kid aside, take a deep breath, and listen to his side of the story. You want to hear about what was happening when the incident occurred, what happened before and after, and how he feels about it. Listening effectively—especially when you’ve been upset by disturbing news—is very difficult. Kids are often the opposite of clear (they often don’t understand their actions, themselves). Listening takes practice, and most of us don’t have much experience. Don’t expect perfection the first time you try it. Practice, and determination, are the key.

Here’s a “guided” listening technique called proactive listening, developed by communications expert William Sonnenschein. In proactive listening, you, the listener, guide the course of the conversation by asking pertinent, probing questions. Remember, though, it’s still a listening (rather than a talking) technique, which means it’s your job to hear what your child says, not to control the content. Here are some reasons to try proactive listening:

  • To get and keep the conversation on track. You’re on the hunt for information, and your child may not know what’s important to say. As an effective proactive listener (silent and stealthy) you can gently steer the conversation over to the important subjects.
  • To delve deeper into the depths of detail. Your child may be glossing over important facts because he doesn’t know what you need to hear. Or he might be trying to hide information (the little scamp!). By asking the right questions, you can cut through to the deep details.
  • To help your kid express himself. By directing him with your questions, you hear what he is trying to communicate and he (bonus points!) may begin to better understand his own thoughts and feelings about the incident.

Ready? Here’s how:

  • Ask an open-ended question. The best proactive listening questions can’t be easily answered with a simple yes or no. Say, for instance, that you’re trying to understand why Tommy chopped Belinda’s hair off at the roots. You might ask, “What were you feeling before you cut Belinda’s hair?”
  • Don’t react to the answer! Say Tommy says, “I was really happy because I wanted to get back at her and I knew this would make her cry.” Don’t stop the “exercise” to make judgments or criticize—you’ll have lots of time for that later. It won’t help for you to scream, “You were happy to make her cry? You insensitive little—” Listen quietly. Allow time for the child to fully finish.
  • Get more information. As you listen, find a cue to an area you feel needs to be explored, and ask another question about what has been said. “What did you want to get back at her for?” Now you’re getting some information.

Look at Family Dynamics

Proactive listening is one way of figuring out what is going on with your child. Another way is to look at your family dynamics. What has been happening between you and your child? Between your child and the rest of the family? Between you and your partner and other family members? Family tensions frequently manifest in misbehavior.

Look for the Message Behind the Action

As you seek to understand your child, it’s important to look a little deeper, at your child’s underlying motivations. As you go through the process of responding to misbehavior, think about the incident and what it might mean to and about your child. Psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs developed an important theory of child development based on his belief that a child who is misbehaving is discouraged, and believes both that he lacks significance and that he doesn’t truly belong.

Jane Nelson, author of several books on children and discipline, feels that a child’s misbehavior is often due to:

  1. A need for more attention
  2. A feeling of not belonging because he/she doesn’t have as much control as others
  3. Anger/revenge at feeling hurt or depressed
  4. Giving up