Children misbehave because they don’t feel secure.
Children don’t feel secure for two reasons:
1) They don’t know what is expected of them
2) There is a big change in their life
I know I’m simplifying a lot, but with all of the information out there, sometimes it is helpful to simplify. But I also know that there are often a lot of other factors contributing to behavior so when looking at your child’s behavior, start here, and if this doesn’t work, then look into other factors.
When parents contact me about their children’s behavior, I start asking questions. Pretty soon one of two things pops up: 1) there isn’t a routine or outlined expectations 2) there was recently a big change.
The first one- expectations- is very easy to control. In fact, it is our job as parents to control. How does it look? First, create a good routine. That means doing the same things in the morning before you head out for the day or the same things before the children go to bed. It means creating the routine with your partner and your children (if they are old enough) and writing it down. One family was trying to nail down a bedtime routine and they got it all worked out with the father doing the majority of the routine when the father said, “But what about the nights that I’m home late?” and I asked them, “How often is that?” “Almost every night.” We had spent all that time working on the ideal bedtime routine and it wasn’t even possible for most nights. Make a routine that works for you every single night- even if it isn’t perfect.
Once you have a routine set and followed, you will find that many behaviors disappear. But not all of them. And that is why you need to be constantly outlining behaviors ahead of time.
Before you walk into the restaurant, discuss the behaviors you want to see. Then make sure that everyone is on the same page if those behaviors aren’t present (such as one child sits in the car with an adult, or your child won’t get a special book before bed). Before you go to the store, discuss the behaviors you want to see and what will happen if you don’t see them. Constantly be outlining what your expectations are.
This one seems really obvious because anyone with a huge change in their life will need some time for adjustment. But what isn’t obvious is that what seems like a little change to us, is a huge change for the child since their lives are so small.
So what constitutes a big change? Just about anything. Daylight saving time is a big change. Illness is a big change. Moving, new school, new sibling, new caregivers, new diets are all big changes.
So what can you do if practically everything is considered a big change to a little kid?
1) Don’t fret too much about it
2) Set yourselves up with a good routine so that they can weather the changes.
I like to put this in a adult’s perspective so that it makes more sense:
Let’s say that you have a 9 to 5 job and every day you go in to work at 9 am, and everyday you head home at 5 pm. Pretty awesome right? You can tell your daycare provider when you will be there to pick up your kids, you can make happy hour plans with your friends a week in advance, and you feel secure and comfortable in your day. Then one day, your boss walks in at 2 pm and says, “Hey, I need you to stay until 9 pm tonight.” You are pretty flexible and say, “Yeah, that isn’t ideal, but I can do it.” because you know that the next day, you will be able to leave at 5 pm again. You are able to change your routine simply because you know that you have a routine to go back to.
Now let’s say that you have a job that starts most days at 8 am but sometimes you don’t go in to work until 10 am and sometimes your boss lets you leave at 2 pm but sometimes you have to stay until 8 pm and you never really know if it’s going to be a short day or a long day. It is somewhat stressful because sometimes you can pick up your children, but sometimes your husband has to do it and how to remember it all is such a headache. When your friends ask if you all want to go out for pizza you have to remember which night will be an earlier night but then it might change so you really don’t know. Without a routine- it is stressful! Then one day you boss walks in and says, “Hey, I need you to stay until 9 pm tonight”. You will probably say yes because you want to keep your job, but how will you feel about it? You will feel less secure because you don’t really know if you are going to have another late night the next night, or that maybe 9 pm is your new routine. It is really hard to weather a big change without a routine because you don’t have anything to settle back in to.
In the first situation, you know that after one really long day you will go back to a normal schedule, but in the second situation you don’t have a normal schedule so when you have one really long day, it isn’t clear if you will continue to have really long days and that is an unpleasant feeling.
It is the same for children. If they have a consistent schedule and routine, they can have a big change to the schedule without much fuss. But if they don’t even have a routine, then a big change can be very upsetting and they will show that through their behavior.
Setting up a routine should be super easy, but it’s not. It is hard to look at both what is best for children and what works for the whole family. Contact Boulder Child Whisperer if you need help creating a useful routine for your family.