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Discipline: When Children Misbehave

R. Kris Jenkins, HES Specialist in Bates County, University of Missouri Extension


Discipline is always a hot topic with parents. But, when parents separate and/or divorce, the child’s behavior can create great concern.


“How, when and ‘if’ to discipline can become a bone of contention between parents,” according to Kris Jenkins, HES Specialist, University of Missouri Extension. But how much of the misbehavior can be credited to the divorce or separation?


“The bottom line is that ALL children misbehave,” said Jenkins “They are children after all and they are always testing and learning what is acceptable.” If you understand why children misbehave, it can be easier to decide if your children’s misbehavior is related to the changes in their lives or just part of a natural process of growing up.


Why Do Kids Misbehave?

Children misbehave for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s simple—they are hungry, tired, ill, or have been cooped up without exercise. Other times, it’s more complicated. Children can misbehave because they need:

Attention. They feel important when getting the parent’s total attention. More parental attention when children are behaving can help this problem.

Revenge. When children are sad or hurt, they may act out to get even. This often happens in situations of divorce because children don’t have the emotional maturity to know how to deal with the hurt and pain.

A feeling of control. When children feel that factors in their lives are out of control (such as parent’s separation), they can act out.

More confidence. If they feel they are inadequate in some way, they may misbehave to divert attention or to make you expect less of them.


It’s important to remember that all children, not just those involved in parental problems, misbehave. In fact, some children seem unaffected by events whether positive or negative. “A child’s bad behavior after parents split can be tricky to decipher,” adds Jenkins. Is your child biting his sister because he misses his mom or because that is what kids do before they learn how to control their anger? Did your daughter miss curfew because she just didn’t want to leave the fun or was she mad because her dad didn’t show up for visitation that week?


Jenkins reminds, “As a single parent, you have to consider carefully why your child is misbehaving and try to decode the emotions behind that misbehavior.” On the other hand, to use the divorce or separation as a reason for all misbehavior is usually an overreaction. True misbehavior happens when a child CHOOSES to behave inappropriately. Before you discipline, make sure your child knows the behavior is inappropriate.



Last Updated 05/05/2009









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