Why Kids Misbehave

by Jody Pawel

When children misbehave, our gut reaction is to do whatever we can to stop it and stop it fast! There are three big problems with reacting instead of responding to misbehavior:

  1. Misbehavior is only a symptom of a deeper core issue that the child is expressing in a negative way. If you only try to stop the objectionable behavior but don't identify or resolve the core issue, that misbehavior will continue or another one will crop up, until the core issue is resolved.
  2. Reactions will always either escalate the situation or give an accidental payoff which will cause the misbehavior to continue (I rarely say "always" or "never" but it fits here, so take notice).
  3. Reactions always focus on the negative behavior whereas "responses" focus on the core issue and teaching the child how to resolve or meet that core issue through positive behavior.

Responding Effectively to Misbehavior

First, stop and ask yourself why is the child misbehaving? Now you would think there are probably a gazillion reasons why children misbehave but if you ask three questions you will see that every misbehavior will fit into one of five categories.

Unintentional Misbehavior

The parent has a problem with misbehavior that results from the child's lack of skills. This could be due to the child's age or developmental stage, personality trait or temperament, a medical condition or lack of knowledge. (From Early Childhood S.T.E.P.)

The solution: The child hasn't mastered the skills, so you want to teach the skills. Even if you've "told them a million times," children might "know better" but that doesn't mean they've mastered the skills to actually act better. Some behaviors can take awhile to consistently remember and do until they are a habit. That doesn't mean you excuse the behavior, but you want to be sure you teach or reinforce skills before or during discipline.

"On Purpose" Misbehavior

The parent has a problem with misbehavior that seems intentional, to serve a purpose. At the root of all misbehavior is discouragement. Children become discouraged that their positive behavior didn't meet their goal, so they resort to negative behavior. There are four types of "on purpose" misbehavior (based on Rudolf Dreikurs "Four Goals of Misbehavior"): attention, power, revenge, and giving up.

Identify the Child's Goals

A single behavior, such as running away or not talking, can serve more than one goal. To identify which of these four goals a particular misbehavior is serving at that second in time, ask yourself two more questions:

Question One: How do you feel when you see that behavior? All intentional misbehavior can make you feel "PO'd" but look for the feeling that comes before your anger. This is the feeling that will differ for each goal.

Question Two: What am I tempted to do? You will usually feel like reacting in one of two extreme ways. One extreme will escalates the situation. The other will give a payoff. You want to avoid both.

Child's Goal




 Giving up

You're Tempted to

 Remind, nag, and push away

 Argue, punish, or give in

 Show hurt or hurt back