Why Kids Misbehave… and What You Can Do to Prevent and Stop It

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 this approach:

  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 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.

To respond effectively to misbehavior, take these two steps:

Step 1. 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 3 questions that are part of the “Universal Blueprint Parenting Success Formula”you will see that every misbehavior will fit into one of 5 categories.

All Misbehavior is a “Parent problem” because it involves inappropriate behavior. So the easy-to-remember symbol for all 5 categories of misbehavior is P (for Parent).

  • PU = Parent problem involving 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.)
  • PO = Parent problem involving “On purpose” misbehavior: The parent has a problem with misbehavior that seems intentional, to serve a purpose.

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 PO misbehavior (based on Rudolf Dreikurs “Four Goals of Misbehavior”) :

  • 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.
For more practical tips and tools on preventing and stopping misbehavior, check out our teleseminar on Why Kids Misbehave...
and What You Can Do to Prevent and Stop it
This teleseminar includes a resource package with links to handouts and bonus resource to help you get the most out of this valuable material. For more information and to order, CLICK HERE.

Step 2: Redirect the misbehavior by showing the child how to meet that goal through positive behavior. If the purpose is…

  1. PU = Parent problem involving Unintentional misbehavior:a. The child hasn’t mastered the skills, so you want to teach the skills.
    b. 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.
  2. PO = Parent problem involving “On purpose” misbehavior:Figure out what the child is getting from the misbehavior (Step 1) and tell/show the child how to meet that purpose in a positive way.
  3. 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:
    •  Involve the child in a meaningful activity.
    • 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:
    • Offer choices within your bottom line limits.
    •  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:
    • Resolve their hurt first, 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.
  • 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:
    • Acknowledge the child’s feelings,
    • 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)
    • 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 following resources.

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 following resources:

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens of thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. 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, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

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