Why Don’t My Children Behave?

Kelly is beside herself. She and her husband are parents of two children, ages 4 and 3. They decided to have their children close together so they could get through the more intense parenting of the preschool years within 5 years.

Both are committed to their careers and work full-time. Both are exhausted by the end of the day. They want to have peaceful evenings and weekends, but the kids act up and they end up acting up, too. They’ve tried everything from the “naughty chair” to letting the kids duke it out to separating them. Nothing works. What can they do?

It’s said that there is no manual for how to raise kids. Actually, there are hundreds of “manuals” on the market. Each book recommends a different technique. Often the suggestions in one contradict the suggestions in another. Kelly and her husband, Jim, have dutifully read and tried out several. They’ve come to me in desperation. They had dreams of a happy family. To their dismay, they find themselves sometimes wishing they’d never had kids.

These are good people. They love their kids. They are trying their best. They’ve bought the books and even read and tried to apply them. They came to me in yet another effort to make their family better. “Is it too late to change things?” they ask. 

Not at all. The kids know they are loved. Destructive patterns haven’t gone on for so long that they will be difficult to change. The couple is willing to do some work with me. My basic framework for parent education with couples like Kelly and Jim includes these 4 “rules”:

Rule #1: Ditch all the books.

In their efforts to find the perfect way to discipline children, Kelly and Jim have tried a number of methods. By applying the book of the week, they’ve been so inconsistent the kids don’t know what to expect.

We work together to find one consistent approach they feel most comfortable with. Consistency alone will help. As long as their choice doesn’t support abusive treatment of kids in the name of “discipline” (spanking, shaming, or extended time-outs that leave a child feeling abandoned, etc.) I’m willing to work with it.

Rule #2: Understand that not everything a kid does that parents don’t like is misbehavior.

Sometimes kids are hungry, tired, bored silly, or needing attention. Their ability to cope collapses and they whine or get balky or act up.

Kelly and Jim come home tired and hungry and wanting attention from each other. The kids come home from daycare tired and hungry and needing parental attention. Everyone is on a thin thread. I ask them to make homecoming for everyone go differently. We talk about how they can put aside their own needs for an hour to provide a small snack for everyone, to do a quiet activity with the kids like reading a story, and to give the kids lots of positive attention by talking about the day while snuggled on the couch.

Rule #3: Stop being impatient with the kids and start analyzing.

Kids’ misbehavior is often a behavior that “misses.” It doesn’t get them the positive attention they want and need. When parents don’t anticipate their needs or when requests don’t work, children cast about for something that does.

The most common reasons children misbehave are these: 

  • Attention: One of my best teachers often said that young children need attention like a plant needs sun and water. If they feel they can’t get it directly, they will do whatever it takes to finally get mom or dad to pay attention. Negative attention, even being yelled at or deprived of something they want, is preferable to no attention at all.
  • Plea for help: A child is so tired or frustrated or upset, they don’t know what to do with themselves. They act up to get a parent to fix it. If a parent meets the kids’ pleas with impatience or ignoring due to their own exhaustion and frustration, the upsets just go from bad to worse.
  • Figuring out limits: When parents are inconsistent, the kids don’t know when a “no” really means “no.” They’ll keep up a behavior until the parent explodes. “Okay,” they think. “Now I know what the limit really is.”
  • Problem solving: Children don’t come to us knowing how to engage us or how to solve problems, so they experiment. Some of the experiments win praise and positive involvement from the big people. Some experiments result in broken toys and hurt feelings, which also gets the big people involved but not very happily. 
  • Figuring out how to use power: Little kids want what they want. Stronger kids take the toys away from the weaker ones. Big kids try out intimidation. They aren’t being “bad.” They don’t yet know social rules. It’s up to the adults to teach children how to share, how to get along with others, and how to use their power productively. 
  • Normal separation/individuation: The “no’s” and “why’s” of preschoolers can be frustrating to adults, but they are an important part of normal development. It’s the way a child begins to separate from a parent and find their own identity. When adults react with humor and explanations, the result is a positive step in growth. When adults react by just overpowering the child, the child’s sense of self suffers. 

Kelly and Jim ruefully admitted that their kids do all of these. Jim admitted he’s especially apt to give in when he is tired so his “no’s” aren’t always solid. They both acknowledged that they have been reacting more than teaching — which brings us to Rule #4.

Rule #4: Teach skills.

The word “discipline” has the same root as “disciple.” It doesn’t mean “to punish.” It means “to teach.” Our most important job as parents is to teach our kids how to get along with others and how to solve problems. Whether we teach skills purposefully or not, the kids learn by watching the grown-ups.

That can be fine when a kid’s parents have good relationships with family and friends and have a calm and effective way to deal with challenges. The children will still need explanations, but they will generally pick up a positive way to interact with the world. However, when parents treat others harshly or respond to problems by getting overwhelmed and angry, the children will pick that up as well.

Three months later: Things aren’t perfect, but they are much better. Kelly and Jim really worked hard to turn things around. The first hour of homecoming is now something the whole family looks forward to. Both are doing their best to be consistent and to focus on teaching, instead of just reacting. They are now feeling optimistic that they can have the kind of family they had dreamed of.

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