Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

How to stop your child's irritating behavior

"If you entertain thoughts that... your child is manipulating you, taking advantage of you, ignoring you, or disrespecting you -- you will often feel annoyed, irritated, and angry.  However, when instead you think in terms of the needs that you and your child are trying to meet, then you are more likely to feel compassion and connection.  And you are much more likely to take action that contributes to your child's well-being as well as your own."  -- Sura Hart & Victoria Kindle-Hodson

Is your child's behavior irritating you? Whether he's whining, bossy, or defiant, here's why -- what you can do about it.

We all have needs -- for food, touch, fun, self-expression, independence, connection with others.  Children are born completely powerless, dependent on us to meet their needs. As they develop through childhood, they're still trying to figure out how to get their needs met, and they don't always do it in endearing ways. If you want to stop the irritating behavior, you need to decode it so you can address the need behind it. Voila! The behavior vanishes!

So when your child is acting out, remind yourself that she may be using a dysfunctional strategy to meet her needs, but the needs are legitimate. Set whatever limits you need to on her behavior, as compassionately as you can.  Then, consider the deeper need your child is trying to fill.

  • Kids who whine usually feel powerless and like they can't cope; they often just need a chance to cry.
  • Kids who are bossy and controlling worry that they won't get their needs met.
  • Kids who taunt or compete with siblings often need to feel more valued for who they are, and more connected to parents.
  • Kids who "don't listen" often don't feel their desires are acknowledged.
  • Kids who are always rebelling usually need a chance to feel more powerful and competent.
  • Kids who disrespect you are always showing you they don't feel connected enough to you.
  • Kids who are cranky or have a chip on their shoulder usually have an emotional backpack stuffed with tears and fears that they need your help to empty.

What can you do to address that deeper need behind your child's behavior?  Whatever the irritating behavior, the answer almost always begins with building trust and connection.  Your tools for that?

1. Summon up your compassion when your child acts out, and acknowledge her perspective with empathy even as you set limits.

2. Prioritize Special Time to connect with each child one on one every single day, with lots of giggling and roughhousing. This helps your child express those upset emotions so she can free herself of them.

3. Regulate your own emotions so you don't trigger your child's fight or flight reactions.

Once kids are convinced their needs matter to their parents -- on whom they depend to meet those needs -- they can relax and listen to their parents' agenda.  In other words, they don't have to fight with us to try to get their needs met.  They feel the way we all feel when our needs are met: comfortable, happy, open, appreciative.  Ready to cooperate.  And open to learning how to get their needs met in happier ways.

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