People like answers. They like to ask a question and get an answer right away. There are help lines to get answers for some questions. On Thanksgiving people can call the Butterball Turkey Hotline. People call them with problems when they cook a turkey. A popular National Public Radio show was Car Talk. People called in
People like answers. They like to ask a question and get an answer right away. There are help lines to get answers for some questions. On Thanksgiving people can call the Butterball Turkey Hotline. People call them with problems when they cook a turkey. A popular National Public Radio show was Car Talk. People called in with car problems. There are no new Car Talk shows anymore, but the old shows are still popular. People still like to listen to that show.
The first step in both of these hotlines is to answer questions with…more questions! Callers ask, “What should I do?” But before the helpers answer, they ask, “What is happening?” They try to find out why the problem is happening. The turkey experts ask things like:
- What are your concerns with the turkey?
- How big is the turkey?
- How hot is the oven?
- Did you take out the giblets before cooking?
- Did you stuff the turkey? If so, with what?
The car experts ask questions like this:
- What kind of car is it?
- How old is it?
- What noises does it make?
- What have you tried to do to fix the problem?
- How important is the car to you?
The helpers ask these questions so they can help with the problems. They can’t give answers unless they understand the problems. They need to know why the problems are happening. They need to know what is causing the problems. Then they can give ideas to fix the problems.
Every question is different. Every problem is different. Each problem is caused by different things. So, each answer is different. It takes a while to find good answers. It is important to start with more questions.
The same thing is true with children and their behavior. Every child is different. Their behavior is different. Each behavior problem is caused by different things. And each parent is different. Children misbehave in different ways and for different reasons. So, it is important to ask questions. There are different ways to fix the problems. Sometimes parents need help. But parents can learn to find ways to fix behavior problems. They can learn to use different answers to fit different behavior problems. And it can start with asking questions.
Studies show that…
There are many reasons that children might do things that parents think are problems. Think about the Turkey Hotline or Car Talk. What questions were helpful for them? What questions do you need to ask? How can you figure out your problem?
One way some people look at causes of misbehavior is to think of who or what is to blame. Some studies have asked this question about students who cause problems in schools. What do people think causes those problems? Parents and teachers have answered that question. Here are some of the answers they have given:
- It is the parents’ fault.
- The students have emotional problems.
- It is because of family problems at home.
- It is because of bad teaching.
- The students are acting out on purpose.
These studies have shown that focusing on those reasons is not very helpful. Adults who blame the children will not work very hard to help the children change their behavior. Blaming parents or teachers may make people want to stay away from those groups. Blame is not helpful. Instead, it is helpful to look at causes as problems to be solved.
Children behave for a reason. Children misbehave for a reason. Usually the reason is not bad. Children have needs. Sometimes they try to meet their needs in ways that make problems. Adults can help children meet their needs in more positive ways. Adults can match their response to misbehavior by meeting the children’s needs. That can be a good way to stop misbehavior.
There are several reasons that children might show problem behavior. These are reasons that show they have needs. Here are some common reasons.
- They don’t know the rules.
- They can’t follow the rules. Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe they don’t understand the rules. Maybe they are too young.
- They are curious. They want to see what will happen when they do this behavior.
- They want to feel powerful. They want to make their own decision. They want to be in control.
- They are tired. Or they are sick. They don’t feel good.
- They are copying what they have seen other people do.
- They don’t know what else to do. So, they make the only choices they have. Those choices might cause problems.
- They are just being themselves. Maybe they are very active. Or they are depressed. Or they easily distracted. They can’t control those actions. But their actions might look like problems.
- They believe they are bad children. They think they have to do bad things. They think that is who they are.
Parents can help children learn to behave better. But the fix needs to match the reason for the misbehavior. The children’s needs should be met. The helpers on the Turkey Hotline don’t tell all the callers to do the same thing. The guys on Car Talk give each caller ideas that fit that caller’s problem. A parent’s response to misbehavior should fit a child’s reason for misbehavior.
Next steps for parents…
Parents can help to meet the children’s needs. That might stop the misbehavior. You can match your response with the child’s cause of misbehavior.
- You might find out that your children don’t know the rules. Or maybe they can’t follow the rules.
- Your next steps…
- You could make a few simple rules. Having too many rules is confusing for children. Think about what is most important.
- Make sure the children understand the rules. Talk about what each rule means. Maybe make a sign with the rules on it. Use pictures for children who don’t read. Show the children what it means to follow the rules. Show them how to do it. Act out how to follow the rules.
- Explain what will happen when they follow the rules. Explain what will happen when they break the rules. Make sure to follow the rules yourself. Be a good role model.
- You think they are curious. They want to learn how things work. They want to know what will happen if they do something.
- Your next steps…
- Just stand back and watch sometimes. This response will work if the misbehavior is safe. Your child should be able to see that it won’t work. This is a way for your child to learn. It is called “natural consequences.”
- Give your child chances to experiment with some things. It is good to be curious when it is safe.
- Let your children test the rules. But then follow through. Do what you said you would do. Show them what will happen when they break the rules. You don’t need to be angry. Just follow through.
- They want to feel powerful. Everyone wants to feel powerful sometimes. Children want to be in control sometimes.
- Your next steps…
- Let them make some decisions. Choose some times that they can be in charge. Let them choose between things that are OK for you. Do they want to wear their coat or a jacket? Do they want to walk to bed or be carried? That gives them some power. As they get older, they can have more power.
- They are not feeling well. Maybe they are tired or sick.
- Your next steps…
- Pay attention to how the children are feeling. Are they healthy? Do they need a nap? Are they hurt?
- Help them to feel better. They will not be able to do much until they feel better.
- Do not push them past their limits. Do not expect them go shopping at naptime. Do not expect young children to sit quietly for hours with nothing else to do.
- Children often copy what they see other people do. Sometimes they copy good things. Sometimes they copy behaviors that cause problems.
- Your next steps…
- Are your children copying you? Do you need to change what you are doing? You could say, “I know you have seen me do that. I shouldn’t do it either. Let’s both try to stop doing it.”
- Maybe they are copying someone else. Help them understand that it is not OK to do that behavior. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Do not say that the other person is bad. Do not say that your child is bad.
- Maybe they are copying TV or other media. You might want to change how much the children see that behavior. Maybe it would be good for the children to have less screen time. You can also explain it is not OK to do that behavior.
- Sometimes children don’t know what else to do.
- Your next steps…
- You can teach children what else they can do. Maybe they hit another child to get a toy. You can teach the child to use words. You can say, “Ask the other child for a turn. Tell her that you would like to play with the toy now.” Think of other behaviors children can use. Show them how to do something else.
- Children might just be themselves. They might be active or depressed or distracted.
- Your next steps…
- It does not help to try to change who your child is. But you can help your child be good at who he is. An active child won’t just slow down because you say so. But you can help an active child use activity well.
- A depressed child might need some help. Talk to someone to find out if your child might need an expert to help. It is not good for a child to be very sad all the time.
- A distracted child can be easy to work with sometimes. It can be easy to get that child to move on to new things. You can help that child be good at who she is.
- Some children might feel like bad children. They do bad things because they think they are like that.
- Your next steps…
- Avoid calling children bad. Label behavior, not children. Say a behavior is a bad thing to do. Tell them they have choices. Tell them they can change their choices.
- Tell children when they do something good. Help them learn to reward themselves. Compare their behavior to their own past behavior. Help children notice how they are improving.
- Let children know that you love them. Tell them you love them no matter what. Tell them you love them even when you don’t like some of their behaviors.
Sometimes children misbehave for other reasons. Think about ways to match your response to their misbehavior.
- A child won’t go to bed at night. You give that child cola before going to bed. Cola keeps children awake. Stop giving the child cola before bedtime.
- Another child won’t go to bed at night. That child is afraid of the dark. Give the child a nightlight.
- A child doesn’t want to go to school. She says she has a tummy ache. But you think she isn’t sick. You talk to the teacher. You find out there is a bully picking on your child. You talk with the school about ways to deal with bullies.
Be a detective. Think of other problem behaviors. Look for other reasons for those behaviors. Then you can match your responses to those reasons.
Goals for parents…
Choose 2 or 3 behaviors of your children. Think of behaviors you would like to change. Then choose one behavior to work on first.
- Try to think about possible reasons for this behavior.
- You could ask your child, “Why do you do this?” It probably won’t help to ask, though. Your child probably doesn’t know why.
- When does it happen? What happens before? Is there a pattern? This might give you hints for reasons for the misbehavior.
- Is your child healthy? How is your child feeling?
- You could ask your child other questions, like “Tell me what you were thinking. What did you hope would happen?” “Tell me what happened.”
- You could look at some of the reasons listed above. Do any of them seem to fit?
- You could ask other people what they think. You could talk to your parenting partners. Or you could talk to teachers or other family members.
- Choose a possible cause.
- Try a response that fits that cause.
Maybe that response will work. That would be wonderful! Then you could go to a different behavior.
Maybe that response will not work. Then go back and try a different cause.
You might need to try different ideas to find an answer that works. The same thing might happen with the Turkey Hotline or Car Talk. But keep trying. Your children are worth it! You can meet your children’s needs and lower the children’s misbehavior.
This link talks about a smaller list of reasons for misbehavior.
Calzada, E. J., Basil, S., & Fernandez, Y. (2012). What Latina mothers think of evidence-based parenting practices: A qualitative study of treatment acceptability. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 20, 362-374. DOI: 1077-7229/11/362-374$1.00/0.
Lamber, N., & Miller, A. (2010). The temporal stability and predictive validity of pupils’ causal attributions for difficult classroom behavior. Educational Psychology, 80, 599-622. DOI: 10.1348/000709910X486628.
Walker, L. S., Garber, J., & Van Slyke, D. A. (1995). Do parents excuse the misbehavior of children with physical or emotional symptoms? An investigation of the pediatric sick role. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 20(3), 329-345.