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The Reason Children Misbehave

the reason children misbehaveYou and I are adults; we talk like adults, use deductive reasoning, think about consequences for our actions, and make informed decisions based on facts (most of the time). Adults aren’t always wonderfully smart, though. We can, and often do, fall prey to the “little adult syndrome” when dealing with children, especially when they’re misbehaving.

Working with children day in and day out provides me a fantastic perspective and a look into who they really are. Sometimes they’re wonderful angels sent from heaven to remind us of the beauty in life. Sometimes they’re tiny emotional vampires just waiting for us to look away so they can pounce on our weak point. Most of the time they’re somewhere in between.

Usually, though, our expectations are too high. The “little adult syndrome” comes into play when we treat children like they are nothing but tiny adults. We expect kids to use logic, reasoning, and problem-solving skills the way grown-ups do. This is true for parents, teachers, and anyone who regularly spends time with children. We raise our expectations to a point where the children cannot possibly meet them, and we then become disappointed when these expectations are not met. (There’s some of that adult logic.)

What happens when children who don’t know how to control their emotions gets mad? They do things they shouldn’t. What happens when a child who hasn’t learned how to ask politely for things wants something? He or she snatches it.

Children have to be afforded the opportunity to learn. Remember that children have the same basic needs as adults: love/belonging, power/accomplishment, freedom/independence, fun, survival. They’re just not as good as adults at expressing this.

Every action serves a purpose. A child’s behavior, positive or negative, is an attempt either to meet one of these needs or protect a need from being extinguished. Since children aren’t typically as emotionally attuned or as good at problem-solving as adults, these actions seem scattered and pointless at times. The basic needs mentioned above are very general, but misbehavior in children tends to serve a more specific purpose. There are four main goals of misbehavior with children: attention, power, revenge, and inadequacy.

The biggest problem adults have with children misbehaving is we take it personally. Kids are good at hurting our feelings. Little Johnny yells at you when you tell him it’s time for bed; Suzie whispers something hateful under her breath; Stevie says he doesn’t want you to come to his class on his birthday. These are all examples of things children do that make adults sad or mad. Check yourself and search for the real meaning behind what’s going on.

Even if a child’s aim is to make you upset, it’s got more to do with the child than it does you. The child is trying either to fulfill or protect a need. The child is saying something different than you’re interpreting most of the time. His or her actions may seem intended just to make you mad, but look below the surface. Step back, take a deep breath, and examine the situation more closely.

Managing negative behaviors from children can be tricky. Adults’ prevailing wisdom is to punish a child for misbehaving. If the behavior is not corrected, then you should punish the ill-behaved child harder and harder until you prevail.

What!? I’m not anti-punishment; in fact, I believe in spanking. Here’s the rub, though: the child in front of you is telling you he or she needs something, and most of the time what the child needs is not a spanking or a timeout. Understand what such children really need and try to meet them there or at least help them express their needs better. Behaviors have messages. What is that child trying to tell you? When you think of it this way, misbehavior isn’t misbehavior at all; it’s the most effective way of communicating a child knows.

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The Reason Children Misbehave


Thomas Winterman

Thomas Winterman is a therapist, school counselor, author, and blogger who lives in Panama City, FL. His e-book, The Thrive Life, is available on Amazon. His blog can be found at www.thethrivelife.org.


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APA Reference
Winterman, T. (2018). The Reason Children Misbehave. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-reason-children-misbehave/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.