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Why Kids Misbehave

The truth is, misbehavior is as much a part of childhood as nose-picking and scraped knees are. But that doesn't mean we should excuse it when Johnny plays Frisbee with Grandma's special china or Cindy ties her stroller to the dog's tail  -- again. If you view acting up as a normal part of development  -- and not just a sign of parental inadequacy  -- you can get a step up on stopping it.

Understanding why children engage in bad behavior is critical to curbing it, says Harvey Karp, M.D., a pediatrician and author of the book and DVD The Happiest Toddler on the Block. If you can empathize instead of just getting angry, your discipline is more likely to address the cause of a problem instead of just the symptom. Some common reasons kids act up, and how you can control it:

Not knowing right from wrong
Kids aren't born knowing all of our rules. The world is their stage, your freshly painted Italian Straw walls their canvas, their own poop a remarkably convenient medium. They'll be drawn to experiment, again and again. It's how they learn. And their need to explore is pretty much inversely proportional to their impulse control. So even if a 3-year-old is aware that he shouldn't draw on the table, he might not be able to stop himself once the fabulous idea enters his head.

What to do:
Set clear rules and expectations. And of course do so before unpleasant incidents. You can do so gently: "And remember, we only draw on the paper. No drawing anywhere but the paper."

Make your feelings known. "Without blame or shame, state what you can see, and what you feel," Airhart says. (I see crayon all over the walls! I am really angry!) Then pause to let that sink in so he'll actually feel the consequences of his actions.

Don't worry if he cries. If you haven't yelled and frightened him, crying means he feels remorse. Remorse is good. Give him a second, then give him a hug.

Have him help fix the mistake. This not only clarifies what he did wrong but teaches about problem solving, consequences, and ultimately about how the world works.

Brace yourself. It will happen again.

Heidi Raykeil is an editor and columnist for the website [TOUT_LINK {} {}].

Running on empty

Surprise! Just like you and me, when kids are tired, hungry, or not feeling well, they get cranky and irritable. But unlike you and me, they don't have the skills to contextualize and control those emotions. The result: irrational intransigence, disproportionate displeasure, and monstrous meltdowns.

"A tired child is almost not a child but a monster just waiting to spoil your plans," says Lori Bulloch of North Salt Lake, Utah, mom of Nathan, 4, Richard, 2, and Benson, 4 months. "It's worth it for me to arrange my schedule around naptimes. A rested child is simply a different child."

She's right. Kids will, finally, learn to control themselves, but until age 5 or so they're utterly incapable of doing that on a regular basis. Expecting your toddler to stand in line at the grocery store and heed your command to stop whining for those cookies may require more forbearance than she can muster when it's been a few hours since she last put food in her tiny tummy. "A hungry child's brain just can't process that dinner is coming soon, as opposed to now," says Sarah Airhart, founder of the Community School of West Seattle in Seattle, and mother of Emma, 8, and Harriette, 4.

What to do: When it comes to avoiding sleep- or food-deficit-induced mania, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of tears. If your little princess turns into something much darker if she misses her nap, schedule around it. And of course, try to borrow your parenting mantra from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. It's smart to stockpile extra snacks and small, tidy activities in your purse and glove compartment.

On those inevitable days things fall apart and you're beyond prevention?

Go to primal needs. "Offer them food and water if you have them, and then make a choice: Wait it out or go home," says Airhart.

Stay calm and reassuring. Your agitation will only fuel the fire of discontent. (The fact that this kind of misbehavior seems to favor public places makes this that much harder.)

Provide comfort. Sometimes all it takes to convert a tantrum into sleepy sniffles is a big hug and a few "there, theres." Chances are your child doesn't really know why he's upset, and a little empathy is all he needs.

Offer hope. When my daughter freaks out in the grocery-store line, I calm both of us by imagining out loud how nice it will be to get home.

Don't be intimidated by disapproving looks. When I respond to my daughter in public, I do so just loud enough for others to hear: "Waiting is hard! We've been doing errands all morning  -- let's go home after this!" It's amazing how many kind looks I get with that simple explanation. As soon as I realize most people are sympathetic rather than judging me, I feel great relief, which helps me pull it together even if my daughter can't.

Testing limits

Pushing the envelope is what we do, it's how we progress, it's how we grow  -- and kids are gifted at it.

Around here, my husband and I have a special nickname for our 7-year-old niece, who's living with us. Those days when she's testing every ounce of our resolve, we playfully call her Queen Testoria. As in "Oh, look, it's Queen Testoria  -- she must have forgotten that she already had her chance to get a snack before bed, because I see she's hiding a yogurt under the covers." Queen Testoria tests. She wants to know exactly what she can and can't get away with.

What to do:
Pick your battles. With Queen Testoria, we try to choose the important fights. We won't fight with her about whether she has to eat everything green on her plate  -- we can't force the food down, after all. But we also won't be fighting about eating cookies later, because our rule is if you don't eat your dinner, you don't get dessert. And she knows it.

Don't give in. Part of Testoria's strength is her ability to whine and argue until even the most solid grown-up feels like throwing her own tantrum. Lengthy explanations exploring every in and out of the rule, however, just add fuel to the fire.

But be sympathetic. This shows that rules aren't enforced out of arbitrary anger. "That's such a bummer about no cookie tonight. Well, maybe tomorrow you'll eat your dinner and we can all have cookies together!"

Be consistent. No matter what your family's rules are, if they're not enforced the same way (well, pretty much the same way) every day, you're just asking for prodding, testing, questioning. Without consistency, rules become as tempting to break as a leaning Lego tower in a roomful of 2-year-olds.

"Pay attention to me!"

Kids naturally seek attention. The desire sprouts from two main sources: Either they want you, you, and more you than you can possibly provide (resulting in nagging, whining, or fury that you won't pretend to be the baby again), or they note that they don't have you from the get-go  -- you're on the phone, you're trying to make dinner, you have a friend over and actually had the temerity to attempt a conversation  -- and seek to remedy their perceived emotional exile by doing something sure to pique your interest. Like squeezing berry punch out the straw of a juice box and onto the floor.

If she craves you, she's likely to take whatever she can get, even if it's yelling rather than hugs. Why? "Because love," Airhart says, "is a primal human need. Children like to know someone cares about them." And young kids aren't very good at deferring gratification.

What to do: As your child gets older  -- around preschool  -- he'll get better at seeking your affection at appropriate times, but until then you can try to prevent the worst hounding before it starts.

Feed the meter. Provide small doses of praise throughout the day, and you're less likely to end up with a big fat attention-getting blowout, Dr. Karp says. "It can be as simple as noticing: 'I see you cleaned up your room today. I'm really proud of you.'"

When you can be present, be fully present. It's all too easy to fall into the pattern of answering your incessantly chatty 3-year-old with a distracted "mmm-hmm." But when you can, just take a minute to really listen, even getting down to eye level. When your child demands attention and you think you can't provide it:

Give in. Babies and some younger toddlers just won't understand why they can't be held when they want to be held, so just be the parent and scoop up your needy baby.

Use your wiles. Distraction  -- anything from a quick snack to the miracle of Teletubbies or Blue's Clues  -- may buy you a little time with a child 3 and older. You might also try a surprise plaything, like a big stack of Tupper-ware or a handful of spoons.

Be specific. Tell an older child, from around 4 on up, when you will be able to talk to her. Maybe set a timer to go off when you'll be ready to give 100 percent of you. But stick with what you say. If you promise to "be right there" but are still on the phone 15 minutes later, you're asking for trouble.

Explain clearly, then ignore. If your child is in full revolt, stop what you're doing, explain that you have to cook/talk/work right now and that you'll play with him as soon as you're done, and then just ignore further entreaties. This will be hard, especially if he's a loud entreater. But if he's dry, fed, warm, and safe, it's really okay.

The fear factor

Even the mellowest child might misbehave or act out when he's scared. It's easy to forget that things we take for granted might be scary to a kid.

Rachel Sarah, of Berkeley, California, was excited when her then 4-year-old, Mae, was asked to be a flower girl in a family wedding, and Mae seemed thrilled, too. Until the wedding. "Once we were there, all the relatives wanted to hug her and pick her up. She screamed. She cried. I was furious and ashamed." After the wedding Sarah realized her daughter had just been scared. "She hadn't seen these relatives for over a year, a long time for someone that young. She didn't know who they were. I wish I'd shown more empathy."

What to do: Although it's tempting to pooh-pooh your child's fears, that often makes things worse. Instead:

Acknowledge the fear. Whatever is scaring your child is very real to him, and it's comforting for him to know you understand what he's going through. ∆ Help her find words. A child may have difficulty describing her emotions, but helping her do so is the first step in getting her to take charge of them. "There are a lot of people who are excited to see us  -- I'm feeling kind of overwhelmed, and you must be, too."

Make behavior expectations clear. Part of growing up is learning that we can't act on every feeling. When my 3-year-old defends bratty behavior by saying she's shy, I tell her it's fine to be shy  -- but she still has to be polite.

Counter with creativity. Create a "spray" to ward off fierce creatures of the night (in our house a "good monster" doll  -- funny-looking stuffed animal  -- scares away all the "bad monsters"), draw pictures together of the scary thing, or role-play being confident and unafraid.

We'll never be able to understand every reason our kids act up  -- and we'll never be able to prevent misbehavior completely. Every parent must develop her own spectrum of tolerance, for just knowing why a child is doing something doesn't always make it any less irritating at the time. But just as it's our child's job to keep pushing limits, to grow and learn, it's our job to keep setting limits, to keep him safe and guide him through the strange terrain of civilization. And if we can do so without losing our sanity, why, that's just icing on the cake.