Searching for Why Our Children Misbehave

I want my children to be independent. And while I wish this were self evident, I want my children to internalize moral values so that they do the right thing not because they fear the consequences if they don’t, but because it is the right thing to do. At the risk of being overly simplistic, I’ve noticed that parents tend to fall into two camps, those that believe that their children will do good things and when they don’t it’s because something in the environment is happening that makes it difficult, and those who believe that children will do bad things and that morality has to be forced on children with a very heavy hand. I am vocally and decidedly in the first group.

I believe that my children are capable of figuring out right and wrong and that they will do the right thing without me hovering over them with a stick. And when my children have difficulty behaving, it is my job as a parent to find out why the behavior is happening.

This is a very hard concept for a lot of people to grasp. However, children’s brains are immature. Just like their bodies. Yet somehow parents expect their children to always be polite, well mannered, well behaved, and in control, when the fact is, their brains are immature and some times simply aren’t capable of being well behaved. Through in environmental stressers such as hunger, fatigue, etc, and you’ve got a recipe for bad behavior. The good news is by managing these stressers, and teaching our children to manage these stressers, we can improve our children’s behavior.

For example, yesterday Buddy woke up at 6:00AM. Usually Buddy wakes up between 8-8:30. Not sure what happened yesterday morning to wake him up so early, but there it was. By about 1, I was stalling on putting Sissy down for her nap, where I usually offer Buddy the option of playing quietly in his room or going down for his own nap. Buddy started to become extremely impulsive, throwing blankets over my face, grabbing me, trying to pick up and throw furniture (I am not joking, he is wicked strong), etc. I quickly went through Sissy’s nap time routine and then took Buddy into his room and told him it was nap time. A good three hours later, when he woke up, he was calm.

You see, Buddy wasn’t acting out because he was bad or needed to be punished. Buddy was acting out because he was so tired he could no longer control his impulsivity. Controlling his impulses requires a lot of energy on Buddy’s part, and when he’s tired, he can’t control it. Yelling at him won’t help, it tends to make it worse, because the yelling stresses him out, and makes it more difficult to control the impulsive behavior. Spanking would also make it worse, and give him the idea that there are times when it is okay to hit. A good nap, on the other hand, refreshes him and restores his energy, giving him the strength he needs to control it.

We all have stressers in our life. Lack of sleep is a big stresser for a lot of people. I’m sure we can all think of a time when we were sleep deprived where we acted regrettably and can remember how a good nap restored our sanity. Often when my children act out I wonder if they’re getting enough sleep and if I should tweak their sleep schedule. Now, with them being so young, it’s something I have to monitor a lot. Thing is, this is also teaching Buddy something. For instance, right before I started Sissy’s naptime routine, Buddy went into his room, got out his blanket, and wrapped himself around it on the couch. He was realizing he was tired and needed to sleep. Having the ability to recognize that is important for him to regulate his stress as he grows older. May be in another year, when he’s tired, he’ll be able to announce to me that he’s going to take a nap on his own.

While yelling or hitting may release our frustration, it is a short term solution. Figuring out why our children are acting up and modifying the environment to reduce the stressers benefits us and it benefits our children. It also lays the foundation for our children to be aware of their stressers and modulate them. And yes, I know reading about it can be inspiring and living through it is frustrating, especially since the results take awhile to see. There’s very little instant gratification when it comes to parenting.

However, there are times it comes together. Lately I’ve been watching as Buddy exhibits a lot more control over his behavior. Children will grow up and their brains will mature, and we can help this by helping them regulate their behavior.

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