Why Do Our Kids Act Out?
By Sharlin Craig
Does this scenario sound familiar?
When your child was a baby and crying, people advised you, “Just remember, she’s crying because she has a need that’s not being fulfilled. She’s either sleepy, bored, lonely, over-stimulated, frustrated, hungry, sick, scared, hurt, or has a wet diaper.”
So when your baby cried and you were trying to figure out why, you’d go through the checklist:
· Sleepy? No
· Bored? No
· Over-Stimulated? No
· Hungry? Yes! (As you observed your baby chewing on her fingers)
You’d feed her and then have a happy baby again for a while until some other human need popped up!
Fast-forward a few years…
Now your child is older and isn’t quite as easy to figure out. Life has gotten busier and more complicated over the years with many new challenges and stressors coming into play such as social pressure, homework load, hormones, schedules changing daily, a need for more independence from parents, technology, etc.
So what do you do when your child acts defiant or misbehaves at this age? It’s not quite as simple as when he/she was a baby…
Or is it?
Let’s think about it for a minute.
Can we possibly use the same or similar checklist now with our child as we did when he or she was a baby to figure out which basic need isn’t being met? Maybe by doing this, we can discover what might be causing their defiant behavior.
Research has shown that there are five needs that motivate children’s behavior:
• A need for belonging
• A need for survival
• A need for power
• A need for fun
• A need for freedom
When kids act out, there’s usually a good reason. They don’t WANT to walk around cranky and mad. They want to be happy like anyone else. But sometimes they may not be enough in tune with themselves to know what they need in order to feel more content.
When you, as a parent act out, either to your child or spouse, isn’t there usually a good reason? I know when my spouse is cranky he’s usually either hungry (need for survival) or stressed by having too much work on his plate and not enough time to get it done (a need for fun and freedom, and probably survival since he’s always conscious of making money so we can pay our bills as a family). Once we realize why we’re cranky and talk about it and find a solution, don’t we usually feel better?
Rather than reacting negatively when your child acts defiant, maybe try this ‘basic needs checklist’ to help you stay calm and to attempt to understand your child’s feelings better. You may find it can help you be a steadier presence for your child and to help him/her deal with their emotions more positively.
Here’s a list of five examples of some of the defiance triggers I’ve experienced as a mom and how I was able to address them by using my “basic needs checklist”:
1. Is Your Child Getting Sick Or Is She Over Tired? (Survival)
I’ll never forget the direct flight from Connecticut to California when my daughter was 6 months old. I’d missed the cues that she was getting sick and so, thinking I had a healthy baby, didn’t pack the baby medicine in my carry-on. Big mistake! After two hours of her non-stop screaming and crying, a very kind, empathetic mom saved the day by offering me baby Tylenol.
Eleven years later, there are some days when my now pre-teen daughter wakes up cranky and buries her head under the covers for at least 15 minutes after I wake her up for school. Rather than get impatient with her, I think to myself:
Is she depressed?
(Not that I know of, but I need to keep an eye on that.)
Is she tired?
(She might be. She got enough sleep last night but had a very
busy weekend, had a sleepover at a friend’s and is probably at least four hours behind on her sleep)
Could she be getting sick?
(Hmmm… she’s probably tired from the weekend, a lot of kids at school are sick and she’s probably feeling rundown but doesn’t realize it yet.)
Many times I’ve been impatient with my daughter when she takes forever to get out of bed, only to find out the next day she was getting sick. Talk about Mom guilt!
So with that not-so-pleasant memory in mind, I wake her with a gentle hug to get the happy endorphins going and encourage her to get out of bed and moving.
I make her a healthy breakfast, make sure she takes her vitamins to boost her immune system and am careful not to put pressure on her re: anything that will stress her out unnecessarily.
We talk about some fun things coming up that day or week and I tell her I love her and am proud of her. I’ve found staying positive really does impact her health as well as my own.
That night I make sure she gets to bed early, cross my fingers and hope that the next day she’ll be back to her normal self.
2. Is Your Child Frustrated? (Power)
Picture a baby desperately trying to reach his pacifier after it falls out of his mouth but he can’t do it and no one helps him. He’d be frustrated and probably cry, right?
Now, picture my daughter as she’s struggling with her math homework. When I see her struggle, I offer to help her but she often gets mad at me and pulls away.
By mentally going through the ‘needs checklist’, it’s helped me pinpoint what’s wrong (she’s frustrated and feels she can’t do the math), and the result (she’s angry at herself and wants to give up). Then I realize she’s not trying to deliberately be rude to me and act out, she’s just feeling like a failure.
By addressing her feelings of frustration and anger and being empathetic, I’m able to stay calm and remind her that I’m there to help her.
Once she’s calmer, I try to redirect her positively by using growth mindset statements based on research by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. in her book, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success.
I encourage her with statements such as:
· Why don’t you apply some of the strategies you’ve learned in class.
· Honey, you’re on the right track!
· It’s ok if this takes some time and effort.
· You’re training your brain by doing math.
· Mistakes help you learn better.
I explain this is a challenge for her that I know she can handle and that ultimately she’ll learn and grow from this. When I work with her to change her outlook, it helps her to gain more confidence in her abilities and become more positive toward her math. It also helps to diffuse her anger and her tendency to act out because she’s gained her own power back and feels more in control of the situation.
3. Is Your Child Lonely or Bored? (Fun, Belonging & Freedom)
Picture a baby who’s left in a playpen by themselves for hours. Not good, right?
Well, over the summer, my daughter and I were having one of those boring, nothing-planned, kind of days. I should have known better and planned an outing, but I was too tempted to spend the day getting caught up on laundry and paper work while my daughter played on her iPad.
Of course, within a few hours, I was feeling major mommy guilt for letting her be on electronics for so long. I decided to take her to a local nature preserve to go on a hike.
When I told her the plan, she groaned and rolled her eyes and said she was too tired. I had to laugh. I explained to her that she was lethargic and needed to get out, (which of course she disagreed with.) So I said, “Well, we’re going to go anyways. It’ll be fun.“
Boy, she fought me big time on that! I couldn’t believe my ears and began to engage back by arguing and raising my voice too.
But then, I stopped and thought to myself. She’s bored, lonely and craving connection and completely acting out as a result. And she doesn’t even know why she’s doing it!
So I changed my mad attitude to a matter-of-fact one, packed some water and snacks and said, “We’re leaving in 5 minutes. Please go to the restroom and get your tennis shoes on.”
She continued to fight me but I didn’t give in or engage.
She pouted the whole way to the nature preserve and grumbled getting out of the car.
But within 5 minutes of walking on the beautiful trails, I had my happy, vivacious, full-of-life girl back! I was thrilled and it was such a reminder to me that kids are truly meant to be happy, curious beings! We were having fun, she had freedom to run freely and we were connecting. What a joy-filled afternoon that was for both of us. I was so thankful!
4. Is Your Child Sad or Depressed? (Survival, Power & Belonging)
Now picture that baby being left in a playpen for hours on end, day after day, with no interaction other than a TV. It’d pretty much be abuse, right?
That baby would not only be lonely and bored. He would be angry and depressed from neglect and mistreatment.
These are the same feelings that flare up when an older child is being bullied.
Again, children (babies and older kids) should naturally feel happy or content. When they’re not, there’s a reason and it’s our job as parents to figure out what that is.
If your child is having a change in personality, doesn’t want to go to school, wants to sleep all the time, and is extra sensitive resulting in misbehavior or defiance, something bigger is most likely going on.
Unfortunately, my daughter began to exhibit these gradual changes in behavior at one point during her elementary school years. She was much more reactive and sensitive than normal. Gradually I realized that a best friend dispute she’d been having had turned into more of a bullying situation. I contacted the teacher and, with her assistance, we were able to put a stop to it. Fortunately, summer break immediately followed and we were able to focus our attention on other, more supportive friends over the summer.
The situation taught me a big lesson to be more in tune with any change in behavior with my daughter and to listen more closely to what she told me about school and friends.
In hindsight, I saw that she had been acting out because she’d lost her sense of belonging with her best friend, she’d lost her power to control the situation and her sense of security had been threatened. When I was able to be her advocate, she once again felt protected and loved and was able to relax and be her happy self.
5. Sometimes Your Child Will Just Flat Out Misbehave or Be Defiant Because They Feel Like It
And then there are those moments when you just can’t figure out what’s going on in your child’s brain! Maybe they feel disconnected from you or they’re testing your boundaries to see what you’ll do. Maybe deep down they’re needing some discipline to feel secure. Maybe they need more freedom of choice, or maybe they’re bored and “playing” mind games with you just for fun.
I’ve experienced these types of situations countless times as I’m sure all parents have!
In these situations, I’ve found when I remember to stay calm and simply repeat the word “No” or whatever it is that my daughter is rebelling against, it usually works wonders.
· Child-“Why can’t I have some ice
· Parent-“I’ve already explained why.”
· Child-“But whyyyyyyy?”
· Parent-“I’ve already explained why.”
· Child-“But, but, why not!”
· Parent-“I’ve already explained why not.
Now let’s brush teeth and get ready for
· Child-“You’re MEAN!”
· Parent-“I’m sorry you think so, now let’s
If this technique doesn’t stop the child’s negative behavior, then it’s probably time to calmly tell them if they’re behavior doesn’t change there will be a consequence.
It’s so true that sometimes kids need firm but kind and fair discipline in order to feel loved. When kids are misbehaving, they absolutely know it!!! And when you calmly set them straight with how they SHOULD be acting, they know you love them because you took the time and care to show it.
This article from the NIH, Https://www.ncbilnlm.nih/gov discusses effective discipline techniques for children at different ages and is a great resource for any parent.
I’ve found when I discipline in a firm, fair, reasonable and consistent way, it actually builds a greater sense of trust between my daughter and me.
On the other hand, if I react by getting angry, raising my voice, or giving her a harsher consequence than her behavior warrants, I become the “mean mom” and the lesson is lost.
When we understand what triggers are being set off in our kids because of unmet needs, it helps us teach them how to be aware of those triggers too.
As they grow older, hopefully they’ll learn to meet these needs on their own in a constructive way, such as taking a nap when tired, eating healthy foods to maintain health, communicating effectively when they’re feelings are hurt, learning to ask for what they want or need, planning fun events that they look forward to, etc. In the meantime, it’s our job as parents to be there to give the support our kids need in learning self-awareness so they can ultimately become in tune with themselves and their own needs.
Quick Action Plan
For your quick action plan, ask yourself these questions:
• What 3 defiance triggers happen most often with my child and what are the unmet needs causing the triggers?
• In what ways can I solve these 3 unmet needs?
-Maybe your child isn’t feeling challenged by a passion and is frustrated and resentful because of it. Ask your child what they are inspired by and then give him/her choices as to what they’d be most excited to do.
In my daughter’s case, she loves acting and was frustrated that we weren’t making it enough of a priority, so we’ve found local productions for her to be in. Now she’s absolutely thrilled and inspired.
-Perhaps your child is tired much of the time and therefore cranky almost every day.
Your child most likely needs more sleep. Maybe he needs an earlier bedtime schedule. Or maybe he’s not sleeping well for some reason. Is he afraid of the dark? Having nightmares? Most kids need 10-12 hours of sleep to feel good, so if they’re not getting that, it could be the issue.
Action Plan Over The Next Week
Try observing your child and your household routine over the week. Pay attention to what tends to set your child off. Are the 3 triggers you wrote down, in fact, the 3 that you’re observing over the week?
Ask yourself, am I or is my husband part of the trigger? If so, how can we change our behavior to better meet her needs?
I know that sometimes I bombard my daughter with 20 questions as soon as she gets in the car from school. “How was your day?” “What homework do you have to do tonight?” “How’d you do on your test?”
Sometimes she understandably gets aggravated, sighs and says, “Mom, can I just not talk for a few minutes?”
Of course I want to hear about her day, but it’s important for me to recognize that she’s exhausted and over-stimulated from the day, needs some down time and if I don’t give her space it could trigger her to act defiantly. I respect that she knows herself well enough to know what she needs to ask for, and I’m grateful for that.
As the week progresses, try becoming a trigger detective and see what discoveries you can make and which ones you can address effectively. I hope through being able to diffuse some of these triggers, that your home will become a more peaceful place for your whole family!
Stepping Stones Kids Life Studio®
Santa Ana, California