While parents may be baffled by their children’s behaviors, experts agree that children have figured out how to get what they want. When children misbehave and parents either yell, scream or spank, the child has just been rewarded. Negative attention is still attention. Misbehavior is the most powerful because it gets parents’ most immediate and most intense attention.
All behaviors have a purpose. The purpose of the behavior is what we expect to happen in the end. That behavior may be positive or negative but children know that misbehavior is the most powerful tool because it quickly gets parents to react (usually) with negative behavior of their own.
Whether the behavior is designed to get attention, to gain power, to get revenge or to declare inadequacy, when parents know why the child is misbehaving, they can be more successful at reducing the misbehavior and teaching their children more appropriate ways of being in the world.
This article is about attention getting behavior and remedies that work.
Some parents have a default response of “No” when their children make requests. If the child begs, whines, cries or throws a tantrum and parents give in, the child has been rewarded for bad behavior and has learned to throw tantrums when they meet obstacles in life.
Also, if children misbehave and their parent either yells, screams or spanks, they have been rewarded. Negative attention is still attention and for many children is better than no attention. While no parent would ever think of purposefully rewarding misbehavior, it happens.
So, what’s a parent to do? Decide ahead of time which behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not. Give children plenty of attention. Use what I call social strokes. These are hugs, kisses, smiles, pats on the back, recognition for good behavior, and eye contact. These gestures let children know that they are important to you and that you care about them. When children know they are loved, they will be more cooperative and less demanding.
Say yes whenever possible. “Yes, right after dinner”. “Yes, when your homework is done”. “Yes, of course, when you’re 21". Sometimes you may say, give me a day to think about that. Make sure you get back with an answer when you said you would. This teaches children to keep their word.
When you must say no, stick to it. Be firm but kind. “No, I’m sorry but I can’t let you do that”. Be consistent. If a tantrum ensues, walk away. Don’t attempt to stop it. Tantrums need an audience to continue. When the tantrum stops, continue your friendly conversational tone. Be willing to discuss the child’s frustration. There is no need to punish for the tantrum.
When the child acts out, act, instead of speak. Take the child by the hand or by the shoulders and lead them away from the scene. Wait nearby for the child to calm down. If you must speak, do so in a kind, calm, and firm voice. Be specific about, and state in a positive way what you want the child to do (You can”t do a don’t) when the two of you return to the scene. “When we go back to the table, I want you to sit quietly and eat your food. Be willing to repeat the process until the child gets it right.
BTW, it’s not good manners for parents to make kids eat. By age 2, children can eat on their own. When you’re coaxing you’re paying attention to behavior you don’t want. Children can keep you busy at that for a lifetime.
One last note to remember: The behavior that gets the most attention is the behavior that will continue most often. Be careful about what you react to.
Next month, we’ll talk about the 2nd goal for misbehavior-To gain Power.
© Rachell N. Anderson, Psy. D. July 17, 2012