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Diagnosing children’s misbehavior

Does your child have a behavioral problem, or does he just need attention? How do you know if your child’s misbehavior should be met with punishment or counseling? In this article, Ron Huxley, author of Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting, gives us questions to ask ourselves that will help evaluate our child’s behavior patterns.

Diagnostic questions
Diagnostic questions are parenting tools that assist parents in determining what the motives are behind their child’s behavior. Children’s misbehavior can be motivated by the need for attention, power, revenge, or because of discouragement. Most of children’s misbehavior is due to the need for attention.

Attention in and of itself is not bad, but most children seek it inappropriately. They bug their parents when they are on the phone, interrupt conversations, and whine to get their parent’s attention. When they don’t feel they have succeeded in getting their parent’s attention, they will get mad and power struggle with their parent. If that does not succeed then children will seek revenge.

They will follow the old adage: “Don’t get mad, get even.” Because they feel hurt, they will hurt others. If that does not get them what they feel they need from their parents, they will move to the last motive for misbehavior — discouragement. They will adopt the attitude, “Why bother?” “Nothing I do makes any difference so why should I care.” At this point, children have given up hope. Parents can determine their child’s motive for misbehavior by asking themselves three diagnostic questions:

What happens when I try to correct this problem with my child?
Parents can determine the answer to this question by recognizing their own feelings. Parents usually feel annoyed or irritated when children are seeking attention. Anger is a common emotion for motives of power. Feeling rejected or hurt is typical for revenge motivations. And feeling like giving up (on themselves and their children) is typical of discouragement motivations.

What happens when I try to correct this problem with my child?
When children are seeking attention, parents will remind or coax the child to stop their annoying actions. Children respond to this by stopping momentarily and then staring up again, with the same behaviors or some new, equally irritating behavior. Power seeking children defy the parent’s attempts to correct the child’s behavior. Children continue to act in the same manner and may even “up” the intensity of the struggle.

Revenge seeking children counterattack parent’s attempts at correction. They view every action as being “out to get them” or mistreat them in some way. And so they seek further revenge by intensifying the behaviors or choosing some new weapon.

Finally, when children feel totally defeated, they will become discouraged. They act disabled or inadequate to perform any task, such as their chores or school work. Parent’s attempts at correction usually end up with passive responses on the child’s part or they receive no reaction at all. “What does it matter if I don’t do as you say, I can’t please you anyway”, “Why go to school, I’m too stupid anyway”, or “Why should I get a try out for the team, I’ll just embarrass myself or they won’t want me to play!” are some of the mistaken beliefs of the child.

What action do I need to help my child ask for what he/she needs in an appropriate rather than inappropriate manner?
This diagnostic question recognizes that children are not aware of their motivations for misbehavior. It also recognizes that all misbehavior, even attention-getting, stems from discouragement. Children lack the courage to behave in positive, constructive ways. They are simply trying to figure out where they belong in their family. And when their attempts to feel significant are not met with positive responses, they become even more discouraged and try a new or more intense misbehavior.

What motive they choose may also depend on their interpretation of the situation. But why they choose a particular motive is not as important as understanding that parents can do to modify their child’s misbehavior so that they can get what they feel they need in an appropriate rather than inappropriate manner.

For example, if a child is seeking attention inappropriately, what action can a parent do that would provide appropriate attention to the child? Or if a child is seeking power, what can make them feel powerful without them having to power struggle? Or if a child is using revenge how can a parent not return hurt for hurt or reinforce a child’s forgiving behavior to turn this motive around? And finally, if a child is feeling discouraged, what can a parent do to encourage the efforts, however small they may be, of the child?

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