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You Must Know the Reasons Behind A Behavior to Change It


Some of the toughest questions parents ask me have the word "why" in them. "Why does Cindy hate school?" "Why is Buddy so immature?" "Why can't Chris control his temper?"


I have to admit that to many of these I'm forced to answer, "I don't know." But that doesn't mean something can't be done.

The you must know why myth may be the oldest of the parenting myths. It has its roots in the earliest days of psychology, when theories about kids focused almost totally on why they behaved as they did, saying that the answer lay buried somewhere in past unresolved conflicts and hurts. As other viewpoints became popular, less emphasis was put on the past. Nevertheless, many of these viewpoints also said that in order to change behavior, one must first identify its causes. This old and erroneous idea still governs parenting today.

Because of the you must know why myth, you may think that really good parents should be psychologically slick enough and insightful enough to elicit their children's true inner feelings (as opposed to false outer feelings, I suppose), resolve the dilemmas caused by those feelings, and thus enable all conflicts to evaporate. After all, isn't that what Robert Young was so good at on Father Knows Best? Ah, real parenthood should unfold so nicely.

Knowing why sometimes helps. It sometimes doesn't. But either way, it's, not necessary. Look at your own behavior in this respect. If you procrastinate, do you understand all the reasons why? Does this mean you can't work at changing yourself? When you have a headache, do you always know where it came from? Nonetheless, you do things to get rid of it, don't you? In fact, most of the time you are forced to change yourself without ever completely 'understanding how you got that way. The same observation is true of children. You can't always understand them, but you may still have to change their behavior.

If you're like many parents, though, you feel uneasy when you can't figure out your kids. You're afraid of acting prematurely or being unfair. "What if we punish Jimmy, and we miss some thing that is upsetting him?" Even if something is upsetting Jimmy, and you're not aware of it, he is still responsible for his actions. Maybe the kids at school made fun of his designer lunch box. That gives him no excuse to come home and push around his sister. "But," you ask, "won't a behavior keep coming back if its causes still exist?" Again, not necessarily. In fact, part of maturing and adapting to this world is learning new behavior in the same old bad situations. You want Jimmy to learn how to ignore name-calling instead of getting upset by it, or to realize that he can get good grades even if his teacher doesn't like him. You need to teach Jimmy that he can change his behavior even though his environment or the people in it may not change.

Knowing why sometimes helps. It sometimes doesn't. But either way, it's, not necessary. Look at your own behavior in this respect.

If you are preoccupied with why, you may also waste energy looking for complicated explanations that don't exist. One of my colleagues was seeing a family for counseling. During a session, the father repeatedly badgered his teenaged daughter to tell him why she smoked. Each time, she doggedly answered, in true teenaged fashion, "I don't know." Finally, the therapist stepped in, "Will you please tell your father why you smoke?" The girl then confessed, "Because I want to. I know you don't like it, but I don't care." That was too obvious for Dad. "Quit trying to avoid the issue. Why do you really smoke?" He was convinced they couldn't get anywhere until they got to the psychological bottom of things.

You will endlessly frustrate yourself trying to comprehend everything your child does. Children can be baffling creatures whose motivations are oftentimes impossible to discern. I often hear, "You're a psychologist. You should know why kids do that." On the contrary, it's because I am a psychologist that I've learned to be content with not always knowing why. I keep my sanity better that way.

Along a much broader line, foster or adoptive parents must face a far more frustrating reality. Save for a few general facts, they know little about their new son or daughter's past. Overall, they have to accept the child as he or she is. Bad habits, attitudes, emotional troubles all have to be handled from the present forward. There is no luxury of knowing why.

Of course, much of the time you are in fact able to figure out the reasons for your child's behavior, or at least what you think the reasons are. Even so, you are often unable to do anything about them. Nevertheless, you can still solve the problems they cause.

If the reasons are in the past, they are beyond your reach. You can't go back and undo them. Suppose your fourteen-year-old daughter Cindy hates school. Her attitude has been building for years: Why? By now, the reasons are so many and so complex that you could never identify them all. And even to try would probably be a waste of time. Your main concern is getting Cindy to school now.

To save yourself much misdirected energy, replace your why's with what's and how's. Instead of asking "Why is this happening?," ask "What can I do about it?" or "How am I allowing this problem to continue?" These questions will guide you toward causes over which you do have control.

If the reasons are in the present, they may still be beyond your reach. "Cindy is so hard to manage after she comes back from a weekend with (fill in the appropriate relative). It takes me a week to get control again." But if Cindy has to visit that relative, and that person won't cooperate with you in disciplining her, then you are forced to handle Cindy when she's with you, in the here and now. You can't eradicate all the present causes of her unmanageability.

I can pull a similar illustration from my own family. My younger brother Mike began to dislike school intensely during the middle of one school year. His attitude manifested itself in crying spells, slipping grades, and assorted illnesses. My mother couldn't understand what was happening, because Mike had always enjoyed school. Looking into the change, she learned that Mike's teacher, for personal reasons, was having a difficult year in the classroom. And my brother, who was a sensitive little guy, was reacting. There was little my mother could do about the classroom situation, so she supported Mike but still insisted that he attend school, "sick" or not. She also held him responsible for his grades. Eventually, Mike pulled out of his slump, even though the "cause" was still there.

The reasons for a child's behavior regularly come purely from his own peculiar motivations. In other words, the why lies inside the child's head. Just as we adults perceive the world in our own unique and sometimes distorted ways, so too do kids. They misperceive what they see and experience, and then act upon their misperceptions. The result is behavior that seems to have no logical explanation or basis. And what frustrates us adults even further is that kids often can't or won't explain what is going on. To use another school example, I remember a second-grade girl who started a pattern like my brother's. After about a year and a half of liking school, without warning she began to feign illnesses. Her dad spoke with her, with her teacher, and with school personnel and could find no reason for her puzzling behavior. Obviously, something was upsetting this little girl, but she wouldn't open up about it. Dad felt helpless, but he didn't let the behavior become a habit. He still sent his daughter off to school, and a few weeks later the illnesses disappeared. Where did they come from? Dad never found out. They were one of those many "out of the blue" things that kids do that catch parents completely off guard. Nevertheless, you must deal with them, and they usually resolve themselves.

Always asking why can be an exercise in futility. That's because you can't always know why, and even when you can, you may not be able to do anything about it. To save yourself much misdirected energy, replace your why's with what's and how's. Instead of asking "Why is this happening?," ask "What can I do about it?" or "How am I allowing this problem to continue?" These questions will guide you toward causes over which you do have control. You may not be able to change the past, the environment, or what's in your child's head, but you can change you. And you are often the strongest influence on your youngster's actions. Learning to respond in ways that will reduce tensions and increase your self-control will be the focus of later chapters.



Ray Guarendi. "You Must Know the Reasons Behind A Behavior to Change It." excerpted from Youre a Better Parent Than You Think! (Prentice-Hall, Inc.: 1985): 34-38.

This article is reprinted with permission from Ray Guarendi.

The Author

Raymond N. Guarendi, aka Dr. Ray, is a practicing clinical psychologist and authority on parenting and behavioral issues active in the Catholic niche media. Guarendi is an advocate of common sense approaches to child rearing and discipline issues. Guarendi received his B.A. and M.A. at Case Western Reserve University in 1974, and his Ph.D. at Kent State University in 1978. He is the author of You're a better parent than you think!: a guide to common-sense parenting, Good Discipline, Great Teens, Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It; Straight Answers to Hearfelt Questions, Discipline that lasts a lifetime: the best gift you can give your kids, and Back to the Family.

Copyright © Ray Guarendi
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