Children can behave in exceptionally cruel ways. They may scream “I hate you!” at their parents, or hit a friend for seemingly no reason. And, from an adult perspective, it can all feel very personal and calculated. But children are not being intentionally vicious out of spite. Instead, they are being driven by developmental changes which prompt them to push boundaries. After all, children learn through experience. Understanding that doesn’t make seemingly cruel acts any easier to deal with, of course. But parents need to accept the fact that a child’s occasionally shocking behavior is developmentally normal, and mom and dad may have more to do with it than they think.
Normal childhood development is not enough to explain kids’ weird and sometimes terrible behavior. While kids might treat their world as their personal laboratory, that lab is crammed with people. Just like every human on earth, kids’ behavior is often the product of social interactions. It’s just sometimes hard to suss out what’s prompted the behavior. Is a kid telling their parent they hate them to see what the reaction to that phrase is, or do they feel insecure and are seeking out reassurance by pushing a parent’s buttons?
A lot of the reasons kids might test the boundaries of good social behavior are likely tied up with the people around them, according to Dr. Robert Zeitlin positive psychologist and author of Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids.
“There could be a couple of ways that parents can be involved in this unwittingly or inadvertently,” Zeitlin explains. “One way is that in our distracted lives we have trouble giving all the attention kids need at different phases. Even if we could, at times the great need for attention might mean we might not give enough.”
Zeitlin notes that acting out is often a way to get attention, even parents don’t necessarily recognize that they’ve had a lapse in attention. Suddenly hitting a friend or a sibling, or yelling, screaming, and throwing a toy during a playdate, may simply be the most logical way to get a parent involved, ASAP.
“They are demanding, through their actions, that parents step in to help mediate a situation they can’t seem to work out,” Zeitlin says.
It’s important for parents to also remember that kid’s behavior is also connected to their social circles. As kids hit elementary school and gain more independence they have room to start understanding who they are as a person. It’s not always apparent. And the world offers kids opportunities to try out new identities and social roles. In the first three grades, for instance, there is a lot of activity around gender norms. Kids will police each other incessantly about what boys and girls should and should not be doing.
“In some ways, parents and schools and the adult world give kids openings to wear different personalities,” Zeitlin says. And he notes that those personalities can run the gamut. A child might try on being the caring kid, sure, but there are less desirable personalities to adopt too.
Zeitlin offers a scenario. “A kid might behave poorly and think, ‘I did something that made me feel bad and maybe that’s the world telling me I should be a mean kid,’” he says. “They’ll think ‘I’ll try that on for size. Maybe this is what will give me attention.’”
The problems come when the attention the kid gets is from a parent who is taking it all personally and wants to rip their hair out. Screaming and throwing blame and guilt at a kid isn’t the answer, as much as parents might want to do those things. And, most parents seem to know in their core that taking kids behavior as a personal affront isn’t the most helpful reaction. So, then what is?
“The first step is acknowledging that you’re triggered in that way,” says Zeitlin. “If we dance around that and don’t have some way to process that or say it out loud, then we’re going to be subject to it.”
Zeitlin suggests parents talk to friends and partners about how the behavior sets them off. Just as a way to recognize it. Then, at the moment of bad behavior, he says it’s time to step back and take a long calming breath, before reacting. “That allows us to question the outcome the child is trying to get from the behavior and then figure out how to get them to that outcome in a better way.”
Will that keep a child from testing boundaries? Nope. It’s a natural and important part of childhood. It’s far better they test boundaries and learn about the world, relationships and themselves than fall into quiet compliance.
Still, Zeitlin recommends, it might help if the boundaries parents set are connected to a set of strong values shared by the family. Because if boundaries are well communicated, make sense and aren’t arbitrary, kids are less likely to push them too far.