10 Deeper Reasons for Your Child’s Misbehavior
Every parent faces seasons with their children where they think, what is going on with my child?! If you're in a season of struggle and misbehavior, take heart. You don't have a bad kid. Here are ten deeper reasons children misbehave, and how we can help them on the path to better behavior.
I’d been looking forward to Friday all week. I’d invited along other moms, coordinated plans, planned and packed snacks, and loaded the minivan for a fun outing. I anticipated that our day trip to a nearby outdoor area with places for playing in nature, touring a tiny cave, and splashing in water would be a great time for our crew of very young kids and their moms.
But not long after we arrived in our caravan of minivans, my daughter became grumpy and agitated. She was already tired and hungry. It was a bright sunny day, so I kept pushing forward. I was doing my best to entertain her, her sister, and all the moms and their kids. When she fussed, I attempted to distract her with a fun place to splash, a slide, and money to buy ice cream.
What’s not to love, right? Wrong. My girl’s grumpiness snowballed into fussiness and then explosive tears. I attempted to correct her by fussing right back, which set the disastrous snowball rolling downhill.
I spent the remainder of the day trying to contain her rather than enjoying or calming her. For several days after, I even resented her for “ruining” our outing. Nice, right?
But it was me. I’d been the one to mess up that day, and after I really thought it through, it was obvious.
My child was feeling exhausted, overstimulated, hot, hungry, disconnected, and dysregulated. I’d let her stay up late the night before then woke her up early. We drove a couple of hours, stopped at the grocery, sang loudly to music, squeezed her into a new swimsuit, entertained ourselves with a few too many activities, and then my girls splashed around in the heat while I was distracted and disconnected from them.
I had rolled up the snowball and then nudged it over the hill.
Have you ever had a parenting day like this? Are you like me and have had lots of them?
For so long, when my kids misbehaved, I blamed either them or myself. Until I had a few too many disastrous day trips that finally got me thinking and praying about misbehavior, I had assumed I was a mom who couldn’t “control” her kids. The Lord then helped me see so much of what I had been missing, that there are many reasons that kids misbehave. This realization was both a hard reality check and a welcome relief.
If you are struggling with your child’s behavior, you aren’t alone. To protect our kids, we can’t always share behavioral struggles. But rest assured, all parents face behavioral challenges with their children. That is part of growing up. And take heart, there are so many more reasons that a child misbehaves than defiance.
If you’re struggling with a child who seems stuck in a pattern of misbehavior, here are 10 deeper reasons that could be to blame.
On that “fun” road trip, it’s obvious to me now that my child was far too overstimulated. I had pushed and entertained her in the name of a good time, until she couldn’t cope with it at all. When our kids are inundated with too many stimulating experiences, sounds, sensations, and movement, they can feel overwhelmed.
When engulfed by stimulation, they often can’t explain that they are dysregulated. Instead, they might show us that they can’t cope by acting out. They become tired and grumpy, and without being able to tell us, they need to return to a familiar, quiet, and peaceful place.
When your child misbehaves, begin by considering the stimulation that they have experienced, all the way back through their day. Kids often meltdown at big social events or theme parks due to the overload of sounds, colors, foods, and people.
Your whole family will enjoy themselves more when you keep overstimulation in mind. Plan in downtime, rest, and quiet.
I do it all the time. I forget that my kids don’t have the mental or physical energy that I have. They might not pinpoint feeling tired, so their lack of rest manifests into emotional blow-ups.
Before we’d even arrived the day of our day trip, my kids had run in and out too many stores with me buying snacks and water toys. They’d then traveled a long distance in a car. Even when your kids don’t act exhausted, be mindful of how much rest they need versus how much they received.
Most of us feel like our kids are so well fed that they can skip a snack or a meal here and there. We also assume that since we filled their water bottles, that they are drinking enough. When considering a child’s misbehavior though, we can sometimes trace it back to simple hunger or thirst.
When our kids’ blood sugar bottoms out, though, or when they fail to drink water, they might feel and act cranky.
This is an easy one to fix. Keep pushing the healthy, protein-rich snacks, and urging them to take water breaks before, during, and after outings.
Though their little minds are still forming, our kids get embarrassed too. And that is not a pleasant feeling, is it? It is human nature to develop a desire to maintain self-image, and that starts early on.
If your child is showing signs of anger, check in on what their day or week has felt like. Has anything happened that made them feel shame? If they got embarrassed trying to read aloud, fell on the school stairs, or missed a goal in soccer, these are all experiences that they might not yet be equipped to handle. Their feelings might play out more dramatically or harshly when recounted without the maturity to rationally process it.
Talk to your kids about what embarrassment is and how it feels. Give them words to share their feelings so they won’t come out as being short-tempered.
Bullying comes in all types of forms, in lots of different places. Do whatever it takes to keep a dialogue going with your child. Dig to find out how they are being treated on the bus, playground, lunch table, and in the neighborhood. Ask how the way people talk to them makes them feel.
We have to teach our kids what bullying is, how to respond to it, and how to process it. If we don’t, a child being bullied at school might get off the bus irritable and whiny.
Anxiety, worry, and depression are increasingly common among kids. This often manifests itself as anger, jumpiness, or disengagement. An anxious child might spew out their confusing feelings, either as outbursts or failure to cooperate.
This is another area for us to dig into through conversation. Ask open-ended questions and watch responses. Teach your kids to name their emotions and feelings so they can express them to you through words rather than behavior.
7. Independence Building
Kids want to grow up. They want to try things on their own and increasingly take the reins. Sometimes they nudge you gently for it, and other times they try to force it. Sometimes this push, this growth, is unsafe and premature, but other times it is healthy. If a child is grabbing for independence, find ways to let them have a bit more where appropriate. Rather than saying no to so many of a child’s requests for freedom, consider offering some new freedoms, while asking open-ended questions about how they think something should go or how they want to handle things.
8. Feeling of Disconnection
Though I had planned that outing of mine with the kids in mind, I was completely disconnected to them all day. I’d started the day barking orders, giving behavior reminders, dragging them through the grocery, and then had shifted my focus to managing the day’s agenda. I was also distracted by conversations with other kids and adults.
My kids felt disconnected to me, which caused them to feel frustrated and out of sorts. Without even understanding their feelings, our kids can become desperate for our attention. That might look like begging or not cooperating.
When our days are filled with outings, distraction, and stimulation, one of the most powerful ways to diffuse anger and bad behavior is to draw your child close, look into their eyes, give them a hug or physical touch, and listen to them for a bit.
A great resource is Karin Purvis’ The Connected Child.
9. Trauma Response
If a child has experienced trauma, they must have ways to process through it, or all their related feelings will spew forth in other ways, including very difficult behavior. Be mindful of what your child has experienced and work to uncover triggers. Seek help. Behavior related to trauma typically requires in-depth, strategic help from parents, pastors, and therapists.
10. Sensory Integration Differences
Most of us move through the world staying focused and productive despite a great deal of sensory input. We can tune out sounds, ignore itchy clothes, concentrate while feeling a breeze, work without considering the texture of our paper and pen, and talk without being distracted by the light of a TV screen.
But some of our kids cannot fully integrate such input. They become overstimulated, or under-stimulated, by their senses. They can be discouraged by everyday tasks or overwhelmed by more complex tasks. Kids with sensory needs struggle and often have difficulty expressing it without being irritable or explosive. They need us, and possibly therapy, to help them understand their unique responses to sensory input.
Take heart, parents. With some digging, we might discover a host of reasons for our child’s misbehavior. Pray and ask God to show you what you are missing in and with them. With that understanding, we can help meet their physical and emotional needs and then teach them to become self-aware. Through understanding, an intentional focus on feelings, and support processing through experiences, our families might just be able to go on a few more fun road trips.
Rebecca Radicchi, her husband and crew of kids, live outside Atlanta, where the summers are hot and the tea is sweet. She’s ridden the waves of adoption, breast cancer, and being the mom of kids with complex medical needs. And, through it all, she’s seen that abundance can be found in the uncomfortable hard and in the easy beautiful. She’s also discovered that whether she’s passing bread at the kitchen table, clock-watching in a hospital waiting room, or listening to a neighbor on a porch swing, God always has something to say. It’s a wonder really. She encourages others to listen for it too on her website and Instagram, and also connects with adoptive families at No Hands But Ours.