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Understanding the Whole Child:

Why Does My Kid Act Like This?

--Adam Maisen, LPC-S/ TA

· Parenting,The Kid Connection

Do you ever wonder why your kids misbehave?

Every one of their actions is communicating something important.

Why is my baby grumpy?

Physical Needs:

Our children have been communicating with us since the day they were born. When a baby cries, they are communicating one of the following:

I am hungry! Feed me!

I am tired! Let me sleep! (Maybe this is what new parents are saying.)

I peed and/or pooped myself! Change me!

I have gas!

I am scared! Comfort me!

This is not isolated to babies. My three kids span an age range of almost 6 years, and they all share this pattern. When they start getting cranky with each other, they are often feeling some physical needs that are not being met. When they are hungry, thirsty, or tired, they get irritable. Honestly, so

do I.

Dear Kids,

Sorry I yelled. In my defense, you were acting like a bunch of psychos.

--Renee Charytan

Emotional Needs:

Attention-Seeking Behavior seems to have a negative connotation, but humans want to be recognized. I worked in school-based mental health for almost 15 years, and the usual response to “attention-seeking behavior” was to ignore it. The problem is that children cannot suppress the innate drive to be recognized. They may stop the behavior in the moment, but this does not satisfy the need.


I understand that teachers have a whole classroom of students and may not be able to address each individual child’s needs. However, parents and teachers can have a profound impact on children when we acknowledge them and let them know we appreciate them. When we recognize the emotional needs of the child, they become more open to feedback about appropriate ways to get the attention of others.

Control-Oriented Behavior or “rebellion” communicates a loss of perceived power. When your child responds this way, they usually are feeling provoked or challenged. My children tend to blatantly refuse to follow my requests when they feel this way. As soon as I raise my voice, they tend to push back because I just confirmed their perception of losing power.

If I can keep it together and recognize what is actually happening, I can diffuse this quickly. Parents and teachers can have an extraordinary impact on children when they acknowledge that the child feels a loss of power and calmly validates that the child’s buttons were pushed. When children understand that we “get” them and that we are not going to engage in a power struggle, they are more open to feedback about appropriate ways to feel powerful. (Power poses, assertive vs aggressive behavior, etc.)

Revenge communicates that the child’s feelings are hurt. When you hear your kids screaming, yelling, name calling, or getting physical with each other, they are operating out of this assumption: When others hurt me, my job is to punish them.

In the past few years, I have found an effective strategy for dealing with this. We split the kids in conflict apart, and we calmly sit with each of them and talk to them. We help them identify what they are personally feeling and thinking. We make sure they feel heard, validated, and supported. Then we move to teaching empathy by asking each child how they think their behavior might have caused the other child to feel. Once we have had this discussion with both, we bring the kids back together to mediate a discussion between them that often ends in a natural apology.

Avoidance or questions of personal adequacy come from children feeling belittled or undervalued. In the classroom, these may go unnoticed because they are not disruptive, and may be mostly silent. They tend to withdraw. My oldest son does this, especially when he feels unwanted or unimportant to others.

The best thing we can do in this case is to let them know that we love them and that their thoughts and feelings are important to us. When we listen to them and validate their perspective, they feel valued. We can help our children find effective ways to communicate their feelings with others in a respectful way.

Each of these scenarios has a couple things in common. First, if we jump to discipline before we ask ourselves what is actually being communicated, our intervention will be less useful to our children. Second, if we are unwilling to take personal responsibility over our own emotions, then we cannot calmly approach our children in their time of need.

Parenting is not about authority. It is about relationship.

If you missed last weeks post, you can check it out here: Parenting on Purpose

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