Why Children Misbehave
“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” ― Marshall B. Rosenberg
Children act out because they are in distress, not because they are bad people that need punishment. Acting out is a cry for help, a cry for love. When we respond to poor behavior with anger or punishment, it distances us and invalidates the child’s feelings, often sending them deeper into the feeling that caused the poor behavior in the first place. One of the biggest myths is that if we don’t punish our children that we will spoil them, but we couldn’t be further from the truth. Connecting instead of punishing creates emotional intelligence, allows us to help them process their big feelings, and increases their trust and connect.
Poor behavior is an expression of an unmet need. What is an unmet need? I often refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when going through my checklist of what my children may need. I start with the physiological needs: 70-80% of the time a poor bevavior has to do with being tired or having low blood sugar (being hungry). The rest of the time, it is often related to a need to feel safe or or an emotional need not being met.
You don’t want children that are obedient all the time. “Yes I do! you plead. Just like many traps in life, in the short term, perfectly obedient and well-mannered children feel great. In the long term those children grow up to be people pleasers and even with years of therapy have trouble finding their authentic feelings and happiness. Children should be allowed to disagree, argue, and misbehave, they are trying to figure it out, trying o get their needs met, trying to find their way. Misbehavior shows that they are comfortable enough with us to show us their inner pain. Of course, we want to make sure we help them learn a better way to get their needs met and can use Positive Discipline (in this chapter) and Transformational Communication (Chapter 9) to help them learn without having them be afraid of our retaliation or rejection for misbehavior. If we are too rigid then they will begin to lie and sneak. Rules should instead be simple and few. Offer explanations, “You must be so tired to hit your sister in that way.” Look to infer their behavior to help them learn emotional intelligence, “did you hit your sister because you are jealous that she got a candy?”
The goal is to teach them to articulate their feelings instead of acting them out. When children feel heard and listened to, they have no need to act out. Their feelings are accepted and validated.
What an opportunity!
When a child acts out with us it is an opportunity for us to help them process their unmet need. Of course, in the moment it will not always feel that way. At times you may feel so angry yourself that you will realize that you also have an unmet need. What to do with all of these unmet needs? It’s an opportunity to learn together. Accepting your children then helps you accept yourself. Herein lies a beautiful learning opportunity, to teach your children that life is about learning, and that when they feel a negative emotion it is because something was not aligned with their core. When we teach them this, we can also remind ourselves, what holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl put so well, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Of course, this requires a change of attitude on our part. Our task becomes less focused on controlling external behavior and more focused on letting go of our need to control behavior. It is a place of acceptance instead of a place of judgement. Have you ever had the experience of being upset, telling a friend about your problem and them telling you what to do instead of comforting you? It doesn’t feel great and we do this to children all the time. We are so uncomfortable seeing them upset that we want to fix it right away. When they are sad, we feel responsible and sometimes even resentful…what do they have to be sad about? I took the day off of work, we just spent the day at the park and I just bought you ice cream…now you are crying?
Big Emotions Are an Opportunity for Growth
Instead of viewing big emotions such as crying, temper tantrums, becoming angry easily, and anger outbursts as something inherently wrong or that needs to be “fixed,” the interpretation can shift into a learning opportunity. Through interpersonal neurobiology, we can understand these meltdowns from a neurological perspective. It informs our parenting practices significantly. For example, we know that most young children have not yet learned defense mechanisms to suppress their feelings. The temper tantrums and meltdowns that children express are in fact the way we often feel inside also, but as adults, we have become experts at suppressing or denying emotions.
What happens when emotions are denied? When emotions are denied, there is a consequence. From living in denial or living an inauthentic life, to feeling lack of pleasure or connection to others, denying our emotions is chock full of negative results. Other consequences that result in denying emotions include addictions such as being “busy,” overeating, overspending, and generally dissociating from our body. Sometimes we unconsciously create situations to replicate what needs to be healed from our childhood.
Therefore, one of the most powerful gifts we can give them is to accept them in all of their manifestations: the pleasant and unpleasant. We need to learn to allow them to be in pain. Don’t teach them your patterns of minimization or denial, stay present with them, and the emotion will run its course and resolve itself. When we try to thwart the course of emotions and control them, we confuse our biological responses to stress and our yearning for authenticity with mind-games to hide from big feelings.
But it’s so hard to see our children in pain! When they experience rejection, or a scraped knee, or a tearful outburst, we yearn to comfort them, as much for them as for ourselves. It hurts us to see them in pain. “Don’t cry,” “Don’t be angry” and “It’s Ok” are well-meaning communications, but have a disastrous result. We are, in essence, telling them that how they feel is invalid. This unintentionally teaches them that uncomfortable feelings are not allowed. Instead, the best thing we can say is, “I’m here for you.”
This avoidance of pain is understandable, it’s in the air we breathe. As a society, we have a hard time allowing pain. We medicate fevers, which, within limits, are beneficial and meant to resolve themselves. We over-prescribe painkillers. We are so afraid of pain that we have become addicted to shopping, food, drugs, and being busy in order to distract ourselves from it. But pain does not go away when avoided or masked. The only way to process pain or uncomfortable feelings is to sit with the pain. The only way through pain is to go in it. To allow it to be, to teach us what it is we need to shift, to change—not to ignore it. And pain, can increase pleasure. Without pain, we wouldn’t recognize happiness. And when you have pain, you can experience a relief from pain and greater appreciation for what you have.
Often, when a child has a tantrum or acts out in anger, it is leftover from a previous time when they did not fully express their emotion. My son likes to say “I’m getting my sadness out.” The emotions do not disappear with time. Emotions stay with us until we release them either intentionally or unintentionally. When emotions pent up, they can lead to outbursts in children as well as adults.
What do you think? Do you agree? What has been your experience?
Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and executive director of Roots & Wings Institute for Personal Growth and Family Excellence. In addition, she keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators and clinicians. Dr. Johnston-Jones lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and two children whom she adores.