Experts have identified four major reasons why children act out (see if any of these fit adults you know!). These are for attention, power, revenge or just plain giving up — feelings of inadequacy. Obviously there are more reasons (exhaustion, fear …) but these tend to be the less obvious problems to parents, the root to many issues.
If we can understand why they are acting this way, we can better help them express their feelings and needs — not to mention save us a few gray hairs!
More often than not, we don’t realize how to direct a child until some infraction has occurred. We do our best to give attention and make them feel loved. But if things are out of balance, here are some guidelines to hopefully give you some direction.
You can generally detect that a child is feeling a need for attention when it makes YOU feel annoyed. These are kids who disrupt class by talking out of turn, interrupting your conversations with others or consistently “forgetting” to do something they were asked to do.
An example of dealing with this is: when a child is interrupting you while talking to a friend in the market, place your hand on their shoulder while NOT making eye contact, so they know you know they are there and respond to them ONLY when you’re finished with your friend. “When I’m talking to someone else, please just hold my hand to let me know you have something to tell me. I’ll talk to you when I’m done. It’s impolite to interrupt others.” Try to find tasks and ways your child can get attention positively and then appropriately praise them.
A child may be experiencing a need of power when YOU feel angry, threatened or provoked. These kids constantly break rules, they may ignore you completely or they may even be aggressive toward you or others.
Firstly, walk away. Listen to make sure nobody or nothing is hurt or damaged. Do not engage in a power struggle! Everyone loses and it only serves to escalate the event. Give the child a voice. Let them help make decisions. Give them options that they may choose their activity or dinner or whatever. Empower them.
Revenge is more involved. Often when they’ve tried every other method of getting what they need, they feel so bad they want to make others feel as lousy as they do. They may be outright mean, vandalize things or even be violent. They are out to get even, as it were. YOU may feel hurt, angry or feel like giving up.
Make it clear you won’t play into this (almost like a power struggle). Secondly, assure the child you love them and cite specific positive acts or behaviors. Walk away if needed. Finally, redirect the child while showing appreciation and acceptance of who they are internally. Do not accept the behavior, just the child.
Lastly, a child who feels inadequate is sad. They may feel helpless, worthless, skip classes or dabble in drugs. Parents may experience a feeling of despair, hopelessness or feel like giving up, too. (How you cope at work when you feel inadequate may give you some ideas about how they can cope.)
Honestly reflect on your own behavior. Have you been highly critical? What type of expectations do you have for your child (yes, they should be high, but “reasonable”)? How often and how do you express love and appreciation for your child? Again, cite any positive acts by this child, remind them gently of these and assure them you appreciate those positive behaviors. Try to listen more, talk with them often, repeat back what you hear so that you are both clear on their feelings.
So, obviously children may have multiple things going on in their heads and lives that will affect their behavior. What is the most helpful tool of all for dealing with them? Learn to monitor your own feelings and actions. Communicate from the heart. There are many, many other reasons they act the way they do — find out why! But, love them, always and in all ways.