Inside: Why young children misbehave even when you tell them not to do something. Learn what you can do to discipline in a positive way that helps children behave better.
It was mid morning at playgroup and tension was rising between Theo and his mother.
There was a phone, perfectly placed on the edge of a table. Peeking out just enough for tiny hands to grab. Theo, very determined to get the phone kept reaching up, over and over again.
Never mind the incessant don’ts from his mother …They meant absolutely nothing to little Theo. Nothing!
Testing his luck and his mom’s patience with that glorious phone seemed like the one and only item on the morning’s to do list.
So shiny! So interesting! So irresistible!
Each time Theo came close, his mom would nudge him to the side.
“Didn’t you hear me? Don’t touch! Or… we are going home. Is that what you want? To go home?”
Rinse and repeat.
Until Theo was on the floor. Crying, flailing and now beyond desperate to reach that phone.
“Phone! Have phone! Phone!” Tears…tears….tears….
Eyes fixed on her little boy, Theos mom had that look. That look of love mixed with total frustration and bewilderment. If you have ever cared for a toddler, you probably know the look and feeling. It usually shows up when trying to understand toddler misbehavior. Especially unwanted, repetitive unhelpful behavior.
Why do children continue to misbehave after being asked NOT to do something?
At two years old, little Theo had been trying to explore his surrounding.
He had been trying over and over again to connect with his mom. And To have fun with the shiny phone.
On that day in playgroup, Theo wasn’t misbehaving.He was behaving exactly as a two year old is likely to behave.
With curiosity and determination. A determination to meet his needs for connection,attention and discovery.
All normal and healthy children will misbehave.
Because children are still growing and learning and well, they are human. Totally wonderful yet imperfect little beings that make loads of mistakes on their learning journey.
What You need To Know About Misbehavior
Understanding and stopping our children’s misbehavior is going to be a daily thing in the early years. Of course we would rather children listen and stop the very first time we ask them to do so. It would be just great if our children would not cry, whine, tantrum, lie, hit or engage in otherwise unhelpful behaviors.
Children Need Your Guidance To Do Better.
Unhelpful and unnecessary behavior from young children should always be addressed. Especially if it is behavior that keeps repeating itself over and over again.
The problem? Traditional “disciplinary actions” for these bad, repetitive behaviors don’t usually work.
Warning, Time Outs, taking toys away and saying don’t, do not invite helpful behaviors. Because they do not highlight a child’s capabilities or tease out any underlying needs or issues.
Like in the case of Theo, the more his mom warned him to leave the phone alone, the more his behavior escalated. He tried everything, from getting on tipp toes, to climbing, to tugging on her sleeve. Anything really until he reached total frustration levels and broke into a tantrum.
This happened because children choose unhelpful behaviors when they have unmet needs.
When Children Know Better But Choose To Misbehave
Theo kept reaching for that phone, even though his mom had told him not to do it many times. Can you think of a time when you have asked your child not to do something, more than once, maybe even ten times, and yet they still did that very thing anyways?
Misbehavior and Unmet Needs
While children are very capable and intelligent, they don’t necessarily have the life experience, maturity and self control to make appropriate choices all the time. (We know that even adults struggle with this at times … at least I do when it comes to chocolate!)
If you have ever been with a toddler that insists on wearing a crown to sleep or taking spatula to the bathroom you may have seen this process in action.
Let’s not even bring up issues like cutting toast the wrong way or little hands that just keep hitting the cat. It all looks like “misbehavior” and “tantrums” and “stubbornness” but actually it is a child’s misguided attempt to fulfill a need she has.
What do children need
- Children need validation and acceptance of their thoughts and feelings.
- Children need a sense of belonging and knowing they have an importance place in the family.
- Children need to make choices and experiment with independence.
- Children need loving touch, closeness,attention and stability
- Children need to be respected, heard and understood.
- Children need an environment in which they are safe to explore.
- Children need unconditional love.
When needs go unmet, children tend to show us behaviors that are not helpful. Often they will repeat those behaviors simply because we haven’t been able to decode the need driving it all.
We can help our child want to and be able to choose a better behavior by slowing down for a moment and tuning into the child’s needs.
The Four Questions You Can Ask to Stop Unwanted Behaviors
- Is there a need for me to stop what I am doing and address this unhelpful behavior by connecting with my child?
- Does my child have a physical or emotional need that is going unmet?
- Do I need to set a kind and clear limit for my child?
- Does my child need a safe alternative or better instructions?
In Practice it can work like this:
- Theo’s mom got up and helped him with his tantrum by staying present and close by.
- Theo’s mom validated his needs and desire to play with the phone once the tears had passed “you wanted to play with my phone and I didn’t let you.”
- Theo’s mom put the phone away to reduce frustration (kind) and have out of reach (clear).
- Theo’s mom gave him some alternatives “You can play with the play-dough or choose a ride on toy”
After Theo had calmed down with his mom’s help, he was able to enjoy the rest of playgroup and didn’t even bother going close to the table or purse that had the phone.
Misbehavior isn’t always what is seems and so it doesn’t always require “discipline” as much as it requires a parent willing to decode or understand what is going on underneath it all.
If a child is choosing to misbehave, it’s because they need guidance from someone that they can trust to find a better path.
Let me know in comments if you are struggling with a repetitive misbehavior that just can’t seem to get solved.
Also, If this was helpful to you, sign up for our newsletter and I’ll send you more positive parenting tools and resources right in your inbox.
Peace & Be Well,
The Positive Discipline Series by Jane Nelsen explores unhelpful behaviors and explains the Mistaken Goals of misbehavior.
Latest posts by Ariadne Brill (see all)
- How To Get Your Toddler To Listen and Cooperate (Positive Parenting Examples) - June 11, 2020
- How and When Children Develop Emotional Intelligence and Self-Control - April 21, 2020
- The Most Powerful And Punishment Free Way To Better Behavior - April 13, 2020