Ever wonder why children misbehave? Why a child may act out for apparently no reason at all? Or perhaps why a child is unresponsive and seem unmotivated? So how should a parent deal with their little one? Do you give them a push? Do you brandish a cane?

You are not alone.

The first thing to bear in mind is that a child does not act out or misbehave for no reason. There is always a cause to every symptom. And that is what misbehaviours are, symptoms of an underlying cause. A runny nose is a symptom. The cause is the flu. Differentiating a symptom from a cause, though sounding very obvious as you’re read this, is the thing that most people overlook.

In terms of human psychology, misbehaviours occur because there is an unfulfilled need that may very well have nothing to do with the misbehaviour at hand. In order to identify what is the unfulfilled need, we must first understand what are the essential needs in the human psychology.

According to Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Maslow identified how human motivation generally moved through a hierarchy of 5 needs. The 5 needs in hierarchical order are Physiological, Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem, and finally transcending at Self-Actualization. Typically, an individual’s most basic needs must first be achieved before they become motivated to achieve higher level needs, starting first at Physiological needs, moving up all the way to the need for Self-Actualization.

Physiological – these are the basic physical needs for human survival such as food, shelter, and sufficient rest. This is the largest and most basic need that must first be met before a person will be able to elevate to higher needs.

Safety – this refers to a person’s sense of security and stability and includes your health and well-being, personal security, emotional security, and even financial security. To a child, this may come in the form of knowing that his or her parents will always be there to keep them safe from harm and from overwhelming emotions. Discipline is also crucial in providing a sense of security to children. By placing firm boundaries, a child knows that he or she is free to explore within the safe confines of such boundaries.

Love and Belonging this is the need to be interpersonal and to have a sense of belongingness. It is the need to feel acceptance within a social group, and the need to be loved by family and friends. It is important for parents to be responsive to their children’s behavioural changes as they grow up, and not ignore them simply as ‘temporary phases’. Parents need to demonstrate that they are aware of and concerned with the child’s development phases.

Esteem – this refers to the need to have recognition and respect from others. The sense of self-esteem and self-respect reflects a person’s desire to be valued by others and to contribute to others. Parents need to recognize the achievements of their children and not belittle their efforts. This of course does not mean you should over/blindly praise your child but you need to acknowledge their efforts. Remember, kids may work hard but they might not achieve their expected outcome. A simple “good job”, “keep up the good work”, or “I’m proud of you” will go a long way. Children with a lack of esteem will tend to suffer from inferiority complex, a lack of confidence, and may be more susceptible to peer pressure.

Self-Actualization – this refers to a person’s need to fulfil their potential. This is the desire to accomplish everything that a person can, to be the most that a person can be. This can be expressed in various manners such as in sports, art, music, academics, and so on. It may be understood as the mastery of a craft. Rather than pursuing a goal for a reward, the pursuit is for the sense of self. Children can also exhibit certain levels of this need, for instance when they express creativity, or when they have an intense motivation to complete a task. It is the desire to see how far can they go. For example, parents can encourage this by supporting a child’s curiosity to take up certain hobbies or activities such as art, music, sports, or even a mathematics competition. Parents can share as much knowledge as they can regarding such activities with the child so that the child has a better and informed understanding of the activity, and this in turn may lead to the child setting goals for him or herself in the pursuit of betterment.

By understanding your child’s different needs at different times, you will then be able to address the real cause behind the symptom of misbehaviours. For instance, basic necessities such as being hungry or a lack of sleep will drastically affect a child’s mood (Physiological). A child may refuse to share toys because they may be insecure about the toy not coming back to them or being damaged (Safety). A child may refuse (sometimes aggressively) to perform certain tasks (something as simple as reading or even learning something new) because they actually lack the confidence that they are able to properly perform the task and fear ridicule (Esteem).

The author recalls a humorous conversation that his 5-year old daughter had with her grandfather as follows:-

Grandfather: Are you the smartest person in your class?

Princess: No. I don’t want to be.

Grandfather: Why not?

Princess: If I try to be smart, the teacher will expect me to know everything. She will scold me and I will have to keep studying all the time.

If the underlying meaning of the conversation is analyzed, this has nothing to do with being lazy, but rather the fear of being unable to perform, i.e, to maintain the label of being ‘smart’. This reflects the need for Safety (the fear of being scolded) and Esteem (the lack of confidence to consistently perform academically). In such a situation, it would be helpful if the parent assures the child on both needs. In terms of Safety, the parent can assure the child that the parent will talk with the teacher about the child’s fear. This demonstrates to the child that the parent is providing security. In terms of Esteem, the parent can tell the child that no one is perfect and what matters most is that the child tries his or her best. Practice makes perfect and mistakes are a way of learning in life.

If you pay close attention and be more inquisitive regarding your child’s behaviour, you will be surprised about what you may learn. Don’t assume that a child has nothing meaningful to tell you. If you never ask, you’ll never know.

Many adults make the mistake of assuming that a child does not know any better without actually understanding why a child is acting a certain way.

In the infamous words of Mr. Wormwood from Matilda:

Let’s avoid this at all cost.

Borrowing from the evergreen words of Dr. Seuss instead:


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