You might think he’s trying to drive you nuts, but your kid’s misbehavior probably means that something else is bugging him.

By Vicki Glembocki
October 02, 2018
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Priscilla Gragg

My 9-year-old daughter, Drew, seemed possessed. I simply couldn’t come up with another reason for her frequent freak-outs. For fourth-grade math, she had to practice the multiplication tables for ten minutes a day using an app. The digital rewards for the task were funny-looking monsters—as close to Pokémon Go as an educational tool could get. When she first played the game, she declared it “super awesomeness.” But every evening, as her dad and I cleaned up dinner, she’d sit at the kitchen table with our tablet and kick and scream about how stupid math is. Playing the game as an assignment transformed her into a demon child. It made no sense.

I tried to persuade her with logic: “If you’d put your mind to the work instead of complaining about it, you’d be done by now.” This only made matters worse. “Are you saying I’m stupid?” she’d yell, storming out of the room. I’d reassure her, then redirect her to the table. Once. Twice. By the third time, my patience was shot, leaving behind only my alter ego, known not so affectionately around the house as “The Momster.”

“If you don’t get this math done, you’ll spend the weekend in your room!” I’d threaten. Finally, she’d give in, growling at me the entire time. But at least it was over—until the next night.

“What is going on here?” I whispered to my husband, Thad, after yet another times-table tirade.

“Maybe she just hates math,” he said, with a shrug.

“Maybe she’s just being a pain,” I responded, figuring this was how growing up went: 1) Kids misbehave. 2) Parents get mad. 3) Repeat.

Turns out we were both wrong. “There’s a distinction between misbehavior and stress behavior,” says Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., author of Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage With Life. Repeatedly acting out is a signal that your child is overwhelmed, that her brain has perceived a threat of some kind, leading to the release of the hormone cortisol, he says. Sometimes the nervous system can chill itself out, but if it doesn’t—usually when the stressor persists—her body’s alarm system gets stuck in “on” mode. Then it’s your job to help turn it off.

Unfortunately, pinpointing the trigger can be a challenge, especially when The Momster is busy doling out time-outs and consequences. But if you can slow down long enough in the heat of the moment to ask yourself these questions, it’s possible to figure out what’s really bothering your kid and manage it together.

Is she overstimulated?

Thad and I had assumed Drew was being willfully disobedient. It never occurred to us that she might be distracted. But when I recounted her behavior to Dr. Shanker, he explained that her screaming and sprinting out of the room might be her way of “expressing an inability in the moment to respond to her surroundings.” He says the offending stressor is often environmental: too much or too little light, uncomfortable temperature, clutter, noise. To handle the disturbance, kids need to release energy (which is probably why I sometimes found Drew in another room, rolling around on the floor).

Dr. Shanker suggested that we ask ourselves, “Why is this behavior happening now?” So Thad and I paid attention to what was going on while Drew did her homework. It didn’t take long to get our answer: Everything was going on. Our family’s life revolves around the kitchen; the five of us are typically in the room together, talking, playing, clanking dishes. It’s loud and potentially disruptive. The only way for Drew to deal was to book out of there.

The next night I suggested she take the tablet into the living room and shut the door so she could work in peace. Before I knew it, she was zipping through the kitchen again.

“What are you doing?” I asked, on the edge of crazy.

“Oh, I’m done,” she said. Drama? Gone.

Is he hungry, sleepy, or sick?

Melissa was furious. The Seattle mom’s 7-year-old son, Eli, refused to come to dinner, yelling, “No!” as he turned on the TV. Melissa knew he was hungry. She called again. Still no success.

“If you don’t come to the kitchen right now, you’ll lose dessert,” she threatened.

“Leave me alone,” Eli said, not budging.

“Okay, you lost it,” she shouted.

“Whaaaat?!” he shrieked, in disbelief.

Melissa was on the verge of giving her son a time-out when a thought popped into her head: “Wait—he went to bed late last night. Maybe he’s just exhausted.”

Kids don’t keep track of their own sleeping and eating, and they have a hard time coping if they’re short on either (or both). You’re their memory when it comes to basic human needs. When did he last eat? Did his nap get shortchanged? Is he under the weather? It’s hard to put two and two together when you’re midbattle. “When kids feel bad, they often resist what you’re asking of them until you get frustrated too,” says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a clinical “Dinner is stupid.” Behavior psychologist and author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. “They unconsciously pass emotions to you because they can’t shoulder it all.”

Realizing exhaustion was the root problem, Melissa tried a tactic suggested by Dr. Kennedy-Moore: She acknowledged her child’s feelings and the underlying cause. Sitting down next to Eli, she rubbed his back and said, “You seem all worn out from being up late.” This brief connection put her and her son on the same side, and within minutes he had calmed down enough to join the meal.

Is she feeling insecure?

For the first two months of kindergarten, Dawn’s 6-year-old daughter would walk through the door after school and instantly lose it. “She would hit, kick, and scream maniacally for an hour or more,” says Dawn, a mom in Georgia. She’d heard that the transition to school could lead to meltdowns at home because kids hold it together all day in class. But these were not typical tantrums.

“When your child acts out in a way you can’t explain, she may need calming down before you can get to the bottom of what’s going on,” says Tina Bryson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and coauthor of No-Drama Discipline. Dawn was able to help her daughter do that by imparting the advice of Daniel Tiger to her: “If you feel mad and want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.” Next step: Find a tender moment to probe. Dawn’s opening came as they snuggled up at bedtime. With little prompting, her daughter shared that she felt “dumb” in class because the other kids could do math and she couldn’t. Dawn encouraged her by explaining, “Babies don’t know how to talk, but they learn. Kids who are reading now could only recognize letters before. Everyone learns at their own pace, and you’ll get this.” The pep talk sunk in, and now the outbursts are far less frequent and don’t last nearly as long.

Is he struggling to find the words?

What we see as misbehavior may be a child’s attempt to deal with a problem that he can’t figure out how to solve. Whenever Erin talks on the phone, her 3-year-old son’s M.O. is to get down on all fours and lick the floor. “I’m hoping he stops by the time he’s 18,” the mom from Pittsburgh says, kidding. (Not kidding.)

The action is undeniably gross. What it’s not is naughty. “He may be trying to say he’s having difficulty entertaining himself, but he lacks the language skills to express it,” says Ross Greene, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership With Your Child. Dr. Greene suggests that Erin could give her son the words to use: “I notice that you get upset when I’m on the phone. Are you bored? Do you wish I could play with you?” Once they’ve established what’s bothering him, she can explain that sometimes she needs to talk to other people, and that licking the floor is not okay because it’s dirty and could make him sick. Then they can come up with a plan for keeping him busy when she’s on the phone, like playing with Legos or coloring.

In retrospect, it’s now obvious to Erin that her son was trying to get her attention. But analyzing the situation as it is unfolding means fighting through your own stress and annoyance. Switching from discipline to problem solving goes against our in-the-moment parental instincts. But if you can do it, the solution may be clear.

Is your own stress stressing her out?

Last June was a tough month for Robin and her husband, Kevin. Robin’s mother-in-law was in the hospital for three weeks, and the Indiana couple took turns sitting at her bedside while holding down their full-time jobs. “Our routine was thrown off, and we had no time to spend together as a family,” Robin says. And then the phone calls began—first from her 8-year-old’s dance teacher and then from her camp counselor to say she wasn’t getting along with the other kids. Robin was trying to understand why her normally well-behaved and friendly daughter was acting so out of character, when the girl yelled, “I am done with this s_ _ _!” at dinner one evening. Robin wasn’t even aware her daughter knew that word, but the message rang out loud and clear: She was anxious about her grandma too.

“Parents talk about how their kids stress them out, but our stress also radiates to them,” says Dr. Shanker. Robin realized she needed to control her own irritability about the situation because that would help put everyone at ease. She stopped discussing the details of her mother-in-law’s health when her daughter was in earshot and offered low-key ways she could help with Grandma, like working on a puzzle with her or making cookies for their next visit. Robin also shared her own feelings and apologized for being short-tempered. Those strategies not only reduced her daughter’s anxiety, they also provided a blueprint for how she might respond to life stresses in the future. That’s the big win, says Dr. Shanker: “Our job is to teach our children the coping skills they need to recover on their own.”

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