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

Rescue, pressure, criticize, praise, or expect less

You Feel

Annoyed, irritated, tired or hounded

Others are challenging your authority

Hurt, shocked, or disgusted

Frustrated, discouraged, or hopeless

Redirect the Misbehavior

Once you've figured out what the child is getting from the misbehavior tell or show the child how to meet that purpose in a positive way.

Attention: You will feel irritated and annoyed, like your personal space is being violated. You will be tempted to either tell the child to go away or try to ignore it. Every time you stop to remind the child, you are giving the child a payoff. Although most experts will tell you to ignore attention-seeking behavior, if you've tried doing that you know it doesn't work. That's because the child has to know what to do, instead, before ignoring will work. To redirect attention-seeking behavior, you want to:

  • Involve the child in a meaningful activity
  • Then ignore the negative behavior, but not the child

Power: You feel your authority is being challenged. You will be tempted to argue and put down your foot which will escalate the situation, or give in which gives a payoff. So to redirect this goal:

  • Offer choices within your bottom line limits
  • Then disengage physically or emotionally

Revenge: The root of all revenge is hurt so if the goal is revenge, you will feel hurt, and you will be tempted to hurt the child, physically or emotionally which will escalate the situation. Showing your hurt gives the child a payoff and confirms that they succeeded. So, when your child does something revengeful to you, you must first:

  • Resolve their hurt
  • Then teach the child how to express their hurt appropriately. This is probably the toughest misbehavior to address, because you feel hurt! You must remember, though, that you are the grown-up. You do not have to allow the child's behavior to hurt you. If you only address your hurt, you're not resolving the core issue, which is their hurt. You will get your turn to express and resolve your hurt, but the problem won't go away until their hurt is resolved. So the order of your response steps is important.

Giving up: Of the four types intentional misbehavior, the child who is giving up is the most discouraged. If your child's goal is giving up, you will feel discouraged, hopeless and helpless. You will be tempted to try to motivate the child with praise which escalates the situation because praise actually makes the child feel under pressure to perform. The other extreme reaction is to give up on the child and agree they are inadequate! That may sound preposterous, but when we say things like, "Well maybe you just aren't good in sports," it confirms their insecurities. So to redirect this goal:

  • Acknowledge the child's feelings
  • When children are giving up, they are deeply discouraged so instead of giving praise, give encouragement.
  • If the situation involves the child having difficulty with learning a task or skill, you can also teach skills.

Additional Points to Remember

1. When in doubt, assume the misbehavior is unintentional and teach skills. If you are wrong, the child will go out of his/her way to show their behavior is deliberate, which is the key word in identifying "on-purpose" misbehavior.

2. Unintentional behavior can turn into intentional behavior if we react to it.

3. One behavior can serve more than one purpose, but not simultaneously.

4. The purpose behind misbehavior can shift from one second to the next. You'll feel the change. Ask questions one and two again and proceed accordingly.

5. If we don't redirect misbehavior before we discipline, it turns the discipline into punishment and won't work as effectively.

As long as this article is, it really doesn't do this subject justice. You probably have some questions about effectively responding to misbehavior each time in a way that stops it permanently. Swing by my website for more options.

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parent's Toolshop® Consulting. She is the author of 100+ resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop at Parent's Toolshop® Consulting, Ltd. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic at Parent's Toolshop®'s archive.

© Jody Johnston Pawel. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.
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