Faced with Unwanted Behavior: Ask, “What Does it Mean? Not, “What Do I Do?

How Do You Handle Unwanted Behavior in a Way that Doesn’t Make it Recur?

Children of all ages demonstrate unwanted misbehaviors. They don’t always do what good-hearted parents wish. Babies cry after they’ve been fed, changed, stimulated and hugged. Toddlers make messes after you’ve just cleaned up. Two- and Three-Year-Olds thrive on saying, “No.”
And so it progresses as children, tweens, and teens don’t follow rules you carefully lay out on their behalf. What’s a parent to do?
You lay out your expectations, set routines, and give all the love you have in your heart. But kids still misbehave. Why? What’s it all about anyway?

Three Big Questions to Ask Using Parental Intelligence Demonstrate Unwanted Behavior

1. WHY?”

2. What Does Behavior Mean?

3. How Do I Understand My Child’s Mind?

There seems to be a common parenting belief that unwanted behavior must have immediate consequences. It’s counterintuitive to not act instantaneously when your child is disobedient. Discipline and punishment are considered the cornerstones of parenting. But how do you punish what you don’t understand?

How Unwanted Behavior Shows Positive Emotional Development.

It’s also counterintuitive to consider that unwanted behavior can be positive; that behavior can guide parents. But if behavior is understood, if we know what it’s about, that’s precisely what you may learn.


Three-Year-Old Example:
You ask, “Why does my three-year-old love saying, “No” when I ask him to put his toy in the bin?” With the answer you make a discovery about his growing development. He says, “No” not because he doesn’t want to listen to you, but because he’s exercising his newfound autonomy.
If you tell him to stand in the corner until he listens, he feels defeated and maybe even scared depending on your tone of voice. But if you realize it’s about feeling independent, a positive developmental step, you might say, “Okay. Put it in the bin when you want to.”
Presto! He puts it in the bin. If you thought his misbehavior was about not learning to listen or cleaning up, you would have been incorrect. He just wants to show you he can think for himself. He feels proud that he puts his toys away.

Unwanted Behavior is a Catalyst to Change

Teen Example:
Your teenager starts slamming doors. You might take away her technology for the weekend for not having regard for others. However, she just hides away in her room frustrated and angry because she doesn’t feel understood. After the punishment, the doors are slammed again. What’s going on?
Punishment is making things worse because now your teen isn’t even talking to you. You start to notice that the doors slam when you and your spouse are arguing. It dawns on you there may be a link between the parental ruckus and the door slamming.
One quiet evening, you mention to your daughter that she seems to slam her door when you and your spouse argue. She says bluntly, “Are you getting a divorce?”
The whole picture changes. She was scared that her life would change. While the arguments were going on, she didn’t have the courage to speak up and express herself except by the action of slamming the door and hiding in her room by herself.
Now that you understand, you have an open discussion about whether the arguing was something she needed to worry about or not. Slamming the door actually was a catalyst for talking together.
She doesn’t have to know what her parents are arguing about if it’s not in her best interest, but now she knows she can tell her parents how it is affecting her. This paves the way for future discussions.

Key Elements of Parental Intelligence

• Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior
• Understanding What is on Your Child’s Mind.

Once the meaning of behavior is understood, you know your child’s thoughts and feelings, underlying problems surface, resolutions follow, and parents and children grow together.


Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst whose upcoming book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, will be released in Ocotober, 2015.