Why Children “Misbehave”… and What You Can Do to Prevent and Stop It

When children behave in problematic ways, Americans usually call that “misbehavior.” In some countries and cultures, there is no such word; all problematic behavior is seen as the child not knowing better and the parents’ are viewed as responsible for teaching children proper behavior, setting boundaries while they are learning, and redirecting improper behavior rather than punishing it. This is a pretty healthy view and response to children’s behavior that adults judge to be problematic.

When we view problematic behavior as “misbehavior” that we judge to be “bad,” that judgment often gets passed on to the child and parents might not only judge the child’s behavior to be “bad,” but the child himself/herself. This is quite unfair as children have many developmental tasks and skills they are learning. Even when children experience no trauma, stress, or family dysfunction they have a lot to learn and develop. When you add those additional factors, it can be much harder for children to focus, learn, and change because of the effects stress and trauma have on their brains and bodies…but that’s another lesson for another time.

Reacting to “Bad” Behavior

Whenever we judge something to be wrong or bad, we tend to get more upset about it. So when children “misbehave” parents often feel a gut reaction to do whatever they can to stop it — fast!

There are three big problems with this reactive approach:

  1. Problematic behavior 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 misbehavior 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 Problematic Behavior

To respond effectively to problematic behavior, take these two steps:

Step 1. First, stop and ask yourself why is the child behaving this way? Is it unintentional or on purpose?

A. If it’s Problematic behavior that’s Unintentional, we call that “PU behavior” in The Parent’s Toolshop® and is due to the child’s:

    • age or developmental stage,
    • personality trait or temperament,
    • a medical condition, which can include any mental health or special needs diagnosis and all trauma-related behaviors or
    • lack of knowledge.

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 a while to consistently remember and do until they are a habit. Calling these behaviors “unintentional” doesn’t mean you excuse or allow the problematic behavior; it just helps you understand why the child is behaving that way and reminds you to teach or reinforce skills when preventing or redirecting the behavior.

You can prevent PU behavior by teaching the child the positive behavior you want them to use, teach them how to do it or give them choices for how or when to do it to avoid power struggles. When they do it, notice it by giving descriptive encouragement, not praise or rewards, which create and foster a dependency on external motivation and compensation for good behavior rather than behaving properly because it’s the right thing to do. We behave in positive ways for free, because it has many intrinsic values, such as feeling good about ourselves and fostering healthy relationships with others.

You can redirect PU behavior by teaching the child skills or remind them of skills you’ve already taught them. You may need to set boundaries to keep them safe until they master the skills. You can also use these skills:

  • Ignore behavior, if not dangerous.
  • Offer an acceptable alternative behavior. “You can do this instead.”
  • Use distraction: change the focus or subject.
  • Use environmental engineering to control the situation, not the child.
  • Target PU behaviors and prioritize which to teach first so child isn’t overwhelmed by being expected to learn too much too fast.

Step 2. If it’s Problematic behavior that’s “On purpose” (PO behavior), figure out “What’s the purpose?” With PO behavior, you will have consistently seen the child has mastered the skills to behave properly in this situation but for some reason is deliberately not behaving that way. So you then ask, “If it’s ‘On purpose,’ what’s the purpose?”

Now you would think there are probably a gazillion reasons why children misbehave on purpose, but there are really only 4 goals, according to Rudolf Dreikurs’ “4 Goals of Misbehavior,” which is a core teaching of every research-based Adlerian parenting program. According to this theory, 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.

The four “goals” PO misbehavior (based on Rudolf Dreikurs‘ “Four Goals of Misbehavior”) are:

      • PO for Attention.
      • PO for Power.
      • PO for Revenge.
      • PO for Giving up.

One behavior can serve more than one PO goal, such as running away or not talking. To identify which of these 4 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 “PO” 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. If we feel:

      • annoyed, irritated, tired, or hounded,then the goal is attention.
      • others are challenging our authority,then the goal is power.
      • hurt, shocked, or disgusted,then the goal is revenge.
      • frustrated, discouraged, or hopeless,then the goal is giving up.

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. If we are tempted to:

      • remind, nag, and push away,then the goal is attention.
      • argue, punish, or give in,then the goal is power.
      • show hurt or hurt back,then the goal is revenge.
      • rescue, pressure, criticize, praise, or expect less,then the goal is giving up.

You can prevent PO behavior by helping children meet their positive goals (according to Alfred Adler they way Parents Toolshop® describes it):

  • Involvement: “I want to be a part of the group. I belong when I’m involved and noticed.”
  • Independence: “I want to make decisions and do things by myself.”
  • Justice: “One good deed deserves another!”
  • Withdrawal: “I can handle conflict and failure appropriately. I want reassurance.”

You can redirect PO behavior by showing the child how to meet that goal through positive behavior. If the purpose is…

  • PO for 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:
    • i. Involve the child in a meaningful activity.
    • ii. Then ignore the negative behavior, but not the child.
  • PO for Power: You will 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:
    • i. Offer choices within your bottom line limits.
    • ii. Then disengage physically or emotionally.
  • PO for 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…or show your hurt…which gives the child a payoff…they wanted to hurt you and you just confirmed that they succeeded. So, when someone does something revengeful to you, you must first:
    • i. Resolve their hurt first, then
    • ii. 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.
  • PO for Giving up: Of the four types of PO misbehavior, the child who is giving up is the most discouraged. So, if the 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:
    • i. Acknowledge the child’s feelings,
    • ii. When children are giving up, they are deeply dis-couraged…so instead of giving praise, give encouragement (not praise) (If you don’t know the difference, read the article listed below)iii. 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 PU (Parent problem involving Unintentional misbehavior) 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 PO behavior.
      2. PU behavior can turn into PO behavior if we react to it.
      3. One behavior can serve more than one purpose, but not simultaneously. (See my article on “Tantrums” listed below.)
      4. The purpose behind misbehavior can shift from one second to the next. You’ll feel the change. Ask Q2 & Q3 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. So rather than using trial and error to put out fires, learn more about this system for effectively responding to misbehavior each time in a way that stops it permanently. Just check out the deluxe audio package “Why Kids Misbehave and How You can Prevent or Stop It”, which is not available to the public; only to those reading this article.


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30+ years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop® and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds and needs, and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

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