BLUE SPRINGS, Mo.–You’re in the middle of a crowded grocery story and your 3-year-old grabs a candy bar from the shelf. You quietly tell him to put it back. He screams at the top of his lungs and throws himself on the floor. You feel that all eyes are on you and you want to become invisible.
Most parents probably remember moments like that.
“Sometimes we can prevent misbehavior with some preventive steps,” says Lisa Wallace, University of Missouri Extension human development specialist. “It’s important to understand why young children misbehave. Parents can respond more effectively when they know what the problem is.”
Here are eight typical reasons for misbehavior:
1. Seeking attention
“Sometimes children act up to get your attention,” Wallace said.
When this happens, the best thing you can do is ignore the misbehavior. Put your energy into paying attention to the good things your child does. When this isn’t possible, you can redirect the child into useful behavior or impose a logical consequence for the child’s actions.
“Sometimes when they imitate us, we say they are misbehaving,” she said. For example, if you swear, your child may also use bad language. When this happens you need to change your behavior. Remember that children are more likely to imitate our actions than to do what we tell them.
Sometimes a child’s misbehavior is really their way of testing you. Children often want to know if you really mean what you say. When this happens, you need to be firm. A rule is a rule. When a child breaks the rule, you need to respond in a way that helps your child learn to follow the rule. If you are parenting with a partner, both of you must know the rules and consequences and both of you must enforce them.
4. Growing up
“Misbehavior can also be a sign that a child is growing up, and growing up means striving to become independent from you,” Wallace said.
If this happens, you can both take a cooling-off period. During this time it’s important that you remain friendly until things return to normal. If you can, give your child a choice of what they want to do, rather than simply imposing one choice upon them.
5. Feeling afraid or threatened
Misbehavior can be a way that children who feel afraid or threatened can protect themselves. When you think this is happening, ask the child how he or she is feeling. Offer reassurance if the child is feeling fearful or in danger. Never minimize children’s feelings or tell them their emotions don’t matter.
6. Feeling bad about themselves
“Sometimes children misbehave because they are feeling bad about themselves,” Wallace said. “They feel bad, therefore they act badly.”
Try to encourage your child by arranging for small successes or finding opportunities to compliment good behavior.
7. They are tired, hungry or sick
To prevent this type of misbehavior, schedule your errands when children are rested and fed. Try to keep a regular schedule so children eat meals at the same time, take naps if they need them, and go to bed at a regular time each night.
8. They don’t understand what’s expected of them
“Children may misbehave because they do not really understand what is expected of them or because they are unable to live up to the expectation,” Wallace said.
Be sure children clearly understand what you expect of them. Express your limits in terms of what they should do, and be sure the rules are age-appropriate.
Remember the 3-year-old in the grocery store, throwing a tantrum for not getting a candy bar? A good strategy to avoid that is a reminder before entering the store that you and your children are there to buy healthy foods and that you are not buying candy today. If you are willing to purchase something special on this trip, tell them in the car, letting them know what they can select and how many.
“I cannot promise a tantrum-free trip to the store, but the preventive reminder works in many situations,” Wallace said. “Then, while in the store, ask them to help you find items on your list to keep them busy.”
For more information, see the MU Extension guide “Positive Discipline and Child Guidance” (GH6119), available for free download at http://extension.missouri.edu/p/GH6119.
More resources from MU Extension on parenting and family life are available at http://missourifamilies.org/.