Those of you who are parents can all think of many times your children really pushed your buttons. You set rules, you do your best to enforce them, and work hard to instill good values and morals. Yet, your kids still reliably find ways to break the rules. Why is this happening?
I believe that all behavior has a function or purpose. It can be helpful for parents to pause and reflect on why their child may be breaking the rules. There are different reasons why kids break the rules. Here are some of the reasons I see most often:
Children are still developing and often do not know what they should/shouldn’t be doing. Children’s cognitive, moral and social-emotional development occurs well into adolescence. Children need to be taught. They learn from your direct lessons and they learn from what is modeled for them. If the house rule is “No shouting” please do your best to model this. If you tell your children to “Use their words” they will need your help to describe their experiences and feelings. You can teach this by helping your child narrate their experience and giving them feeling words to help describe what they are experiencing. For example, “You’re sad because Johnny took the toy that you wanted to play with. I wonder if we can talk with Johnny about that,” instead of “Why are you crying? If you can’t play nicely then you’ll have to go to your room.” Try to catch the teachable opportunities.
Kids act out when they are feeling unsafe and when things are unpredictable.
Children thrive when they have a sense of predictability and structure. They feel safe when they know what is going to happen and what is expected of them. Consistent routines and rules/limits set by you help them know that an adult is in charge and is there to keep them safe and well. Establish a household routine, especially if you have young children. Do your best to maintain this routine and discuss changes to the routine (such as on weekends or school breaks) with your children so they know what to anticipate. Have consistent, clear rules and consequences for misbehavior. Children are figuring out what is expected of them and will naturally test limits and boundaries. They will be more likely to push your limits if your response often varies, or if you and your co-parent are not on the same page.
They want your attention.
This one is simple to understand, and yet it can be challenging to implement with all of the demands parents are trying to balance. You can all probably recall a time when your child misbehaved in an attempt to get your attention. This doesn’t make your child a “bad” kid. Your children want quality time with you. They want you to get down on the floor and play with them. When your children are feeling connected and engaged with you, they are much less likely to demonstrate behavioral problems. Challenge yourself to spend 5-10 minutes per day giving your children undivided attention. Put the cell phone down, turn the TV off, ask your partner to respond to the other children, and take a break from household chores. Focus entirely on your child for this short amount of time. Allow your child to direct your play together while you join his/her experience and follow their lead. Some great ideas for this type of play include: art work, Legos, block building, doll house play, dress up, imaginary play, and getting outside together.
Children want your positive attention. In addition to offering more quality time with your child, remember to praise their positive behaviors. Children will be more motivated to repeat behaviors that result in praise or positive reinforcement from adults.
Sara Kind-Michels, MS, LPC, LMFT
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