Why Does My Child Behave Badly?

Parents everywhere have likely found themselves asking, “why did my kid just do that?” Perhaps our normally well-behaved child talked back to us out of nowhere. We might have a kid who refuses to put their phone down during family dinners, having a meltdown when we try to set expectations for restricting phone access. Parents of teens who struggle with severe problem behaviors may see their kids going down destructive paths. As our kids appear to act against their self-interest, we struggle to understand why they continue to make bad decisions.

This Isn’t Our Fault

Parents might struggle with their own emotions when dealing with a teen exhibiting problematic behaviors. They could perhaps feel shame about their ability to parent their child adequately. Other parents possibly shield their children from our kids, believing that everyone in our family is flawed. Feeling that others are judging our parenting skills can make us feel alone and question whether our child’s destructive behaviors are our fault.

Self-blame can be isolating and is never helpful to ourselves—and especially for our kids. We are often doing our best to raise our kids into healthy, responsible young adults. However, we cannot be around our kids 24 hours a day. Our kids can be vulnerable to outside influences that can lead them down dark pathways. They could have underlying mental health concerns, like depression, anxiety, trauma, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) influencing their behaviors.

While we can acknowledge that perhaps we do not know how to manage a child with behavioral issues, blaming ourselves does not help us. We need to accept that we need support to help our kids through their behavioral challenges. However, we must understand that our kids are NOT misbehaving because we are bad parents. Habitual bad behavior, more accurately described as maladaptive behavior, can be explained through a cost-benefit analysis.

The Benefit Outweighs the Cost

Human behavior will always go towards the path of least resistance. Many problematic behaviors can be traced back to simple cost-benefit ratios. When the benefit outweighs the cost of the behavior, the behavioral pattern is reinforced. As an example, let’s consider why people struggle with eating junk food, even when they know that nutritional foods will benefit their health in the long term.

Junk food hijacks the brain with a “quick fix.” The dense calories, sugars, and fats fulfill our needs for satiation quickly. We get more “bang for our buck” when given a choice between a donut for breakfast and a bowl of oatmeal. Our brain will almost always be tempted to take the additional calories of the donut, as our default is survival mode. Humans relied on “quick fixes” for survival during prehistoric times, never knowing when their next meal would come about. Despite our abundance of healthy food choices, the immediate benefit of a donut continues to override the long-term costs because our brains are naturally programmed for survival in the moment.

Seeing Bad Behaviors as Maladaptive

We could be baffled as our kids continue to struggle to make healthy decisions for themselves. While we know the long-term negative consequences of playing video games all night, smoking cigarettes, or drinking alcohol in excess, the concerns of the immediate moment are difficult for our kids to override. A video game, like a donut, is immediately satisfying, fulfilling several needs at once. Drinking to self-medicate for underlying trauma provides immediate emotional relief for a low cost compared to several therapy sessions.

Behaviors like these do not develop because our kids want to be defiant or to upset us. They continue because the payoff outweighs the costs of the behavior. They get more out of engaging in the behavior than they lose as a result. These toxic behaviors become nourishing for our kids; smoking might be a way to deal with stress, pornography can distract them from loneliness, running away provides relief from their problems. When toxic behaviors become nourishing, they become maladaptive and habitual.

Inflating the Cost

When our kids continue to engage in these problematic behaviors, they can set themselves up for failure in the future or negative long-term consequences. However, at the moment, they might have difficulty understanding that they are dealing with things in the immediate sense. Changing maladaptive behaviors requires the cost to be greater than the benefit. As parents, we need to find ways to inflate the costs of these maladaptive behaviors.

We can set consequences for maladaptive behaviors not by challenging our kids to our authority but by allowing the world to show them the consequences of their behaviors. Then, we can become their ally to help them when the cost of their behaviors is greater than the payoff.

Kids can engage in maladaptive behaviors as a means of fulfilling their immediate needs. Maladaptive, or bad, behaviors are often quick fixes, which hijack our brains by giving our kids a higher immediate payoff at a low cost. Video games, drugs, alcohol, cutting, sex, and other behaviors often have a benefit that our kids can experience right now, with little regard for the long-term consequences. While we know that maladaptive behaviors will lead to issues in the future, our kids might struggle to see that because the benefit of the behavior far exceeds the cost. As parents, we can inflate the costs of the behaviors by allowing the world to show them the consequences of engaging in these maladaptive behaviors. For more information on dealing with teens that struggle, join Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center’s Facebook group, “Parenting Teens That Struggle.” You can connect with our staff and other parents for tips to manage challenging behaviors. For more, call us today at (303) 443-3343.

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