Why Do Children Misbehave? Transform Your Child's Misbehavior

As a parent coach and parenting instructor for over 15 years, I’ve seen many faces of misbehavior and supported hundreds of parents. Parenting is tough, a 24-7 job that challenges every part of us, yet it is deeply gratifying. Sometimes our children trigger us in ways we never thought were possible. Then, we can react and jump to conclusions about our children’s behavior that are inaccurate and ineffective.

So why do children misbehave? How children behave rarely has anything to do with what we think is happening. And if you’ve ever been a parent witnessing your child’s tantrum, their behavior can indeed be baffling. However, what we label as “misbehavior” might not be what it seems, after all, according to brain research.

Mother appalled at her son's tantrum in the grocery store

A Misconception About Children's Misbehavior

There is a common misconception about behavior that often causes parents to react too quickly. We tend to believe that behavior is either good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. This misconception causes us to react without thinking, and it creates a lot of unnecessary difficulty with children. We forget that children have their own unique perspectives and experience of the world. By reducing behaviors to black and white, we create a parenting blindspot. Children are not little adults and they do not have the same understanding and skills; they are still developing. Even teens have a ways to go before they are equipped for adulting!

Related reading: "The Adulting 101 Syllabus: 20 Life Skills I'm Teaching My Teenagers This Summer"

A great example of a reaction and unconscious trigger comes from a mom in a parenting class I taught. Her kindergartener walked through the front door after school with green hair. The mom went ballistic as soon as she saw him. I asked her what she was thinking to invoke such a strong reaction. She knew instantly! “All I could see was a teenager standing there with green hair, tattoos, a ring in his nose, and a chain hanging around his waist!” Her mind had catapulted her into some imaginary future scene, and her fear set off a chain reaction. As it happened, she had forgotten about a St. Patrick's Day celebration at her son's school. What started as a fun activity at school soured into a parenting meltdown at home.

Children's Unmet Needs Drive Misbehavior

Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, an Australian psychiatrist, recognized and taught that children have core needs that they are trying to fulfill and when they are not met, children misbehave in an attempt to get these needs met. A child's basic needs are to:

  • feel safe
  • to be loved and give love
  • belong
  • feel powerful and valuable
  • experiment and explore (a big one for teens!)

Children will get these needs met appropriately or inappropriately—whatever works! We train children by our parental responses to repeat unproductive behavior. A difficult concept to digest.

By meeting a child's needs, misbehavior decreasesThere's no doubt that parents want to do what’s best for their children. When a parent lashes out, generally it's because their needs are met! Or it's unresolved pain squeaking out.

However, if we want to change children's and teens' misbehavior, we need to model the behavior we desire. And we also need to rethink the way we approach children's behavior. It's no longer enough to label behavior and use discipline or punishment. Parents need to step back and get curious. Then can we create more ease in our parenting and meet unmet needs driving difficult behaviors.

To accomplish this mindset as a parent, one thing you can do is seek to understand and see life from your child's perspective.

Preschool girl cutting her hair; much of children's behavior is innocent explorationSeeing Life from a Child's Perspective

When my daughter was four years old, she came home from visiting one of her friends with chunks of her hair missing. When I asked how she got the new hairstyle, she exclaimed: "We played hairdresser, mommy!" 

The goal is to shift our thoughts from "How can I get this child to stop this behavior?" to "What was my child trying to accomplish?" or "What need might this child be trying to fulfill?

Age and Developmentally Appropriate Behavior Disguised as Misbehavior

This was an innocent exploration. Children mimic what adults do and my daughter had watched me cut our family's hair multiple times. In her little view of the world, this was a legitimate action fueled by the urge to learn and explore.

Often as parents, we can react not from what is real but from what we imagine, as the mom reacted to her son's green hair. When we move to correct or coerce instead of observing and honoring our children’s innate and insatiable desire and need to experiment, explore, and grow, children turn into “naughty little leprechauns.”

Another example is a mother and dad I coached who had been in a major power struggle with her two-year-old son for months. They lived on a very busy street. Guess what he loved to do? Yup, he would make a mad dash for the street every chance he got! Was he misbehaving? Some parents would think so. This toddler was driving his parents crazy with worry, and their multiple spankings had no effect whatsoever. They were worn down, stressed out, and exasperated.

So let’s dissect this “misbehavior.” Being chased is a powerful experience for a toddler, especially at this stage of emotional development. To him, it was a game! The little boy’s gross motor development was in full swing and screaming to be exercised. Breaking the taboo by running into the street made the mischief that much more appealing. And being able to trigger mom in an instant was extremely gratifying. “I have power!” However, her son was too young to understand the danger of a busy street.

When they discovered the needs driving his behavior, his risky behavior changed in just a few days. How?

First, whenever he ran toward or took one step into the street by himself, he was immediately taken inside, firmly yet lovingly. He, therefore, lost the privilege of playing outside, which he loved dearly. Second, his parents arranged "chasing moments" at their discretion. In the safety of a fenced backyard or a wide-open park, they played the chasing game. Their son's needs were met upfront by fulfilling his need for running and satisfying his gross motor development. The little boy's need to feel powerful and his parents' responsibility to keep their son safe were all met. And a bonus was that they had fun—together.

A father chasing his son and exercising his gross motorSo when your child or teen is "misbehaving” ask yourself, “If my child had a really good reason for acting out, what might it be?” Asking this simple question will help you take a step back and pause before rushing in with a sharp word or a punishment you may regret later (usually after the child is fast asleep, lying there looking angelic and sweet).

Your children need elbow room to grow—safely!

Practice reframing your child's behavior before you respond. Look for the need driving their behavior and seek to understand your child's perspective.

Guaranteed: You’ll enjoy being a parent a whole lot more!

Dig deeper: "Visionary Parenting Is the Key to Capable and Happy Children"

For more information on emotional development, check out "How to Build Healthy Emotional Development in Children." For more positive parenting skills, email support@heartmanity.com. Some of the principles contained in this blog are taken from the Redirecting Children's Behavior course that we conduct at the Heartmanity Center. For upcoming parenting classes, visit Heartmanity.com.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer’s mission is to create thriving relationships at home and work. She coaches children, teens, and their parents in Bozeman, Montana. Jennifer is a parenting instructor of Redirecting Children's Behavior and an Instructor Trainer for the International Network for Children and Families. She's been a parent educator for over twenty years. Jennifer is also the author of "The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence for Children" and co-author of "Hacking the Teen Brain" courses. She frequents homes and schools regularly as a behavioral consultant to help with challenging behaviors. Jennifer is married to her beloved husband and is the mother of three grown, fantastic children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

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