3 Questions with Enormous Impact on Kids’ Behavior

Large bold question mark made with chalk on a black chalkboard, questions

Taking a minute to ask yourself 3 simple questions can make all the difference in guiding your child’s behavior.

Are you sometimes at a loss about what to do about your child’s behavior? Do you find yourself second-guessing how you handled a behavior situation with your child? Are you overwhelmed or frustrated by behavior issues?

When your child misbehaves, it can be frustrating and your first instinct may be to react with yelling or a punishment. But think of their misbehavior as an opportunity, rather than an inconvenience. It is a chance for your child to learn and develop character traits, and it’s a great time for building your relationship together. As a parent, you are key in these moments. 

Take a Minute to Think

Before just reacting to your child’s behavior, give yourself a minute to think. Except in cases of emergency, nothing bad will happen if you take the time to gather your thoughts. In fact, this little personal pow-wow can actually have a life-changing impact on your child’s behavior and your relationship with them.

In the beginning, it might seem too clunky or to do this, but as you practice, this will become second nature. You’ll be able to do it more quickly and without even putting out much effort. Just remember 3 questions–WHY, WHAT, and HOW:

Question #1–WHY Did the Behavior Occur?

WHY is one of the most important questions we can consider when dealing with behavior issues. Knowing the reason a behavior occurred can give you a better idea of what to do about it. It can mean the difference between a simple correction and a major consequence. It can maximize your teaching opportunities. And most importantly, it can protect and even strengthen your relationship with your child.

Here are some examples of WHY a behavior might occur:

The behavior might be expected, given the child’s age and development

You are at play group, and your child gets angry at an other child. He bites a little girl and makes her cry. What should you do? Well, that would depend on the child’s age and development. You should handle the situation much differently with your toddler than you would for a 4-year-old.

For a toddler, this is a “typical behavior”, meaning it’s normal for children their age. They are expressing emotion, but they haven’t yet learned how to do so appropriately. You can use this as a teaching moment. You can show your son the mark on the little girl, point to your son’s teeth and explain, “we don’t bite.” Point out the girl’s tears and say, “That made her sad.” Help him say sorry and give a hug. 

On the other hand, if your 4-year-old is biting other children, you have a much bigger problem. Presumably, you have been teaching your child about how to treat others and maybe have even had some instances of biting or other physical violence. If so, this is a time for consequences, such as a Time-Out or not being able to play with other kids for the day. He should also be given the chance to do something nice for the child he hurt.

The child might not understand the behavior was wrong

Your cute little boy comes to you with a chubby fist full of flowers and says, “I picked these for you, Mommy.” After a moment of gushing over your child’s sweetness, you are suddenly concerned about where the flowers came from. You ask your little sweetheart, to your horror, you learn your child has just pillaged your neighbor’s beloved flower garden.

This is definitely not a situation where you want to jump all over your child and yell at him for picking the neighbor’s flowers. First of all, he didn’t know that that’s something he’s not supposed to do. More importantly, you don’t want to discourage this loving and generous behavior. Your child may misinterpret what was wrong about what he did—that giving flowers (or other gifts) is a no-no. Your relationship may also take a serious blow.

A better way to handle this might be to thank your sweet son for the beautiful bouquet and give a big hug. Then explain that we shouldn’t pick the flowers out of the neighbor’s yard, because those are HER flowers that she worked hard to grow. Maybe offer to help him grow his own flowers or save up to buy some. Walk him over to the neighbor to apologize and offer to help work in her flower garden.

The behavior might not be deliberate

You just worked hard to make a big family breakfast and finally get to sit down at the table. While getting into her seat, your 7-year-old bumps her plate into her cup, spilling milk all over the table.  

This is a simple accident, not misbehavior. We all make mistakes, and this is a perfect time to let your child know this. She is not “clumsy” or “careless” or deliberately making more work for you. She is human.

Talk to her about how you sometimes spill things, too, and it’s okay. Then help her clean it up and move on with breakfast.  It isn’t worth damaging your child’s self-esteem and your relationship over this minor hassle.

There might be something else going on

Your 6th-grader has been really grouchy lately. She has been snapping at everyone and back-talking. She is negative about everything. 

While this behavior is not at all appropriate, maybe your daughter isn’t simply “being disrespectful”. Perhaps there is something else going on that is upsetting her or making her anxious.  Maybe she is being bullied or having problems with a friend. She might be frustrated in a class. She may be having self-esteem or body image issues. Or it could be hormones.

This might be a good time to pull her aside for a talk. Tell her you’ve noticed she hasn’t been herself lately and you are concerned. She may not be ready to share what’s going on right away. Make sure she knows you are always there for her whenever she wants to talk. But also explain that even if something is bothering her, it is no reason to treat people badly. She is still expected to be respectful. Reassure her that you love her no matter what.

Question #2–WHAT is the Goal for this Behavior?

After you have thought about WHY, another important question to ask yourself is, “WHAT is the goal here?”  Why is this behavior a problem, and what do you hope will be the outcome of whatever you do about it?

Is the behavior annoying, embarrassing, or causing a problem for you? Do you just want your kid to shut up, stay out of the way, and keep their stuff clean? Sometimes parents, in the day-to-day grind, get caught up in this type of thinking. But it is short-sighted and actually makes more work in the long run. While you may be able to “fix” this particular behavior this time by punishing them, it doesn’t really translate to other situations. You may find yourself constantly griping or yelling at your child about every single behavior. It will be exhausting and not very effective.

What works better is to think about what will help build character traits in your child long term. For example, do you just want them to stop throwing an embarrassing temper tantrum in the store, or do you want them to learn how to effectively express their emotions? Do you just want your kids to quit fighting, or do you want them to learn empathy and how to settle differences peacefully?

How can you use this behavior to leverage a teaching moment rather than just make it go away? Misbehavior is a perfect time to help your child develop things like compassion, social skills, and self-esteem, which will help them throughout their life. 

Question #3–HOW Can I Best Handle This?

After thinking about the questions WHY and WHAT, you are now armed with information that makes it easy to make a game plan. In the scenarios above, I gave examples of HOW to handle each situation. These are fairly simple situations, but even with issues that are more complex, this technique can help.

By thinking about the cause of the behavior and the outcome you desire, you will be able to better decide how to respond. Does this situation call for a firm consequence? Or would a more understanding and compassionate approach be better?

Asking yourself these three simple questions when your child misbehaves can make all the difference in how the situation turns out. At first it may feel awkward, but as you keep trying, you will become better at it. And you are sure to have better results with your child’s long-term behavior and your relationship with them!

Give it a Try!

Think of a situation you recently experienced with your child. Ask yourself WHY the behavior occurred. Next, think of WHAT you want for the long-term outcome related to this behavior. Now, HOW would you handle this if it arises again?  

What is your Experience?

Have you used questions like these before? Was there a situation where you discovered a reason for your child’s behavior that changed how you responded? Write a comment and share your ideas!

1 Response

  1. Tim says:

    I am a single father and these ideas are good my goal is to raise my children up. Being a single parent is the biggest job I have ever had and I have learned I have to ask for help

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