“Why do they do it?” I ask, pulling my hair out in frustration. “Why do they continue to misbehave?” Good question. After all, we teach our children to make wise choices and they continue to misbehave. Sometimes it’s just immaturity, but they continue to misbehave as they mature…why? Parenting experts offer some interesting insights in this regard. Some have said that “Behaviors such as complaining, worrying, shouting, and nagging are all disguised calls for love” (G. Godek). A call for love, eh? Well, “it ain’t working.” Still, I do believe it is true. When children are scared or confused or when they feel threatened or disconnected, they will “call for love.” They “call for love” through their behavior…and, misbehavior represents an ineffective communication of that need. Misbehavior, a miscommunicated “call for love,” may flow from any of four directions. Let’s look at them one at a time.
1. A child’s “call for love” may flow from a desire for attention. Everyone desires attention. We know someone loves us when they pay attention to us. If a person consistently ignores us, we assume they don’t really like us that much. If, in the midst of busy schedules, our child finds it difficult to elicit our undivided attention, he may learn to get our undivided attention through misbehavior. He may learn that “good behavior” elicits very little attention while misbehavior leads to energetic attention and interaction, that simple misbehavior demands our immediate attention. We may unintentionally teach him that needing constant reminders, coaxing, and nagging elicits our attention. In a child’s world, attention equals love and negative attention is better than no attention at all. Parents can respond to this “call for love” by giving their child positive attention when opportunities arise. Plan one-on-one time with him. Encourage him. Acknowledge his appropriate behavior with simple comments. Establish routines of connection at bedtime, mealtime, and morning.
2. A child’s “call for love” may also flow from feeling inadequate. A child who feels inadequate often believes that he does not belong unless he is perfect. Parents may have contributed to this belief with unrealistic expectations or overly critical responses. Whatever the contributors, this child gives up or misbehaves so others will leave him alone, view him as helpless, and hold him to low expectations. The child who feels inadequate has a deep-seated need for someone to believe in him. Parents can respond to this “call for love” by stopping any undue criticism. Offer encouragement for positive effort and behavior instead. Focus on strengths and abilities. Set up opportunities for successes. Build on his interests and strengths. Enjoy your child’s strengths and let him know you enjoy him.
3. A child’s “call for love” may erupt from feeling powerless. A child who feels powerless believes that she is only worthy when she is in control. She may even fear the unpredictability of feeling out of control. One of the easiest ways to feel in control is to refuse to do what others tell us to do. “They can’t control me” and “You’re not the boss of me” are the implicit messages of a child whose misbehavior is rooted in feeling powerless. Unfortunately, becoming angry and threatening or challenging this child will only intensify her defiance and the energy she invests in winning. The first step in responding to a child who feels powerless is to avoid the power struggle. When we step into the power struggle with this child, she has already won. Do not argue. Talk less and act more. Let the “reality of consequences” do the talking. No need to argue about picking up the toys. Calmly offer the choice, “You can pick up your toys now or after dinner. If they are still there tonight, I will put them in time out for the rest of the week.” No arguing, no debating, no lecturing—just a choice and a consequence. Parents can also limit power struggles by eliciting help from the child whenever possible.
4. A child’s “call for love” may overflow from hurt feelings as well. When a child’s feelings are hurt, she may misbehave to hurts other people’s feelings, to get even in a sense. She may believe that she can’t be liked or loved, so she might as well let others hurt like she does. This child’s parents may think, “How could she do this to me?” They feel hurt, disappointed, or even disgusted by their child’s behavior. In this situation, a parent finds that dealing with the hurt feelings will often help change the misbehavior. Listen. Make amends for any hurt feelings. Express empathy. Show your child, through actions, how much you care. As you lean into the relationship with your child and accept her feelings, you will have the opportunity to explore solutions to her behavior.