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Understanding and Managing Children’s Misbehavior

Let’s start with the most basic of basics: Children are dependent on us adults. They need our attention. Their survival depends on it. Adult concern and attention are required if they are to have shelter, food, safety and, yes, comfort. Wanting our attention is not a problem. Pulling for our attention is a child’s survival mechanism.

Most children, at least most of the time, find positive ways to seek out the attention they need. As infants, they have the advantage of being cute. As they grow, they figure out what the adults around them will respond to and do it.

Did you know that even babies who are only a few months old actually initiate interaction with the adults? When a smile or coo or squirm makes mommy or daddy laugh or pick them up, they learn it’s a reliable way to get their parent involved.

But some children get discouraged in their efforts to get what they need physically and emotionally. The adults are overwhelmed by whatever is overwhelming them. They are distracted. They may be ill or depressed. Maybe they were never adequately parented themselves so haven’t a clue how to respond to a child’s needs. Such parents may not intend to be inattentive to their child’s needs but the child interprets their emotional absence or busyness or unpredictability as a threat to their own emotional or physical survival.

When children feel abandoned, ignored or unheeded, they start to randomly try out ways to get adult attention. The kids quickly learn what will and won’t provoke a response. Screaming sometimes works. So does annoying the adults or refusing to do what the adults want. Some kids figure out that destroying property or being aggressive will do it. A response, any response, is what the child needs most — even if the response is to be shouted at or hit or ignored some more. Once a parent responds, the child knows that at least the adult knows the child is there.

From this point of view misbehavior is not, in itself, a problem. The child isn’t “bad”. The child isn’t a discipline problem. The child isn’t too needy or mentally ill. The child is desperate! Misbehavior, then, is an understandable though sometimes crude effort by a child to get recognized; to feel like they matter.

Adults who don’t understand this most basic of principles often react to misbehavior in equally misbehaving ways. They get aggressive; yelling and spanking. They take away a prized possession or a privilege. They abandon a child through lengthy “time outs” that only make a child feel more alone and scared — and often just make the child escalate a tantrum in order to — finally — get a response.

A negative cycle then gets going: The child feels unheeded and frantically does whatever will get an adult to affirm that he matters. The adult responds with frustration, anger or revenge. The child, feeling even more isolated and uncared for, escalates their behavior. The adult escalates or withdraws, only confirming to the child that he doesn’t matter or isn’t liked. The cycle continues until the adult “wins” simply by being louder or more forceful. Usually it ends with the child sobbing in a heap, and the adult feeling some combination of vindication, relief it is over and guilty that she or he didn’t handle it better.

The more often such a cycle is repeated, the more entrenched the misbehavior becomes resulting in an even more damaged parent-child relationship.

6 Ways to Manage Misbehavior:

Scolding, nagging, and punishing don’t work if the goal is to manage misbehavior without damaging your relationship with your child or the child’s self-esteem. There are better, more effective ways to deal with misbehavior.

  1. Recognize the root of the problem. Recognize that misbehavior is a crude form of problem-solving. The child’s needs aren’t being met. Sometimes the needs are really basic. The child is hungry or exhausted or needs to run around. Sometimes the need is for touch and comforting and reassurance. And sometimes, as difficult as it may be to admit it, we haven’t given our child enough consistently positive attention for him to feel secure in our love.
  2. Resist the temptation to misbehave yourself. Children’s tantrums can be impressive. But responding with an adult tantrum (yelling, screaming, name calling, threatening, etc.) won’t result in better behavior or a loving relationship. It may stop the immediate problem but it only models to the kids that the loudest and biggest tantrum wins.
  3. Don’t abandon a child who is distressed: Remember that a tantruming child needs to be held, not abandoned to a “time out” or “naughty chair”. Hold her so she can’t hurt herself or others. Reassure her that when she calms down, you’ll be happy to talk about the problem. Say only that. Just hold on with a gentle and firm hug until the child regains self-control. Once she is calmed, quietly talk about what happened.
  4. Provide positive, constructive ways for the child to feel validated and seen: Build a “bank” of positive interactions. Talk to your children. Hug often. Read to them. Play with them. Answer their questions. Be interested in what interests them. When children are shown that they are loved by regular, positive attention, there is little need to engage you with misbehavior.
  5. Catch them being good whenever you can. Praise and acknowledge times when your child is behaving well. Regularly commenting on what is right is a far more powerful method of instruction than punishing what a child does wrong.
  6. Learn constructive ways to respond to misbehavior: The best parenting book I’ve ever found is Children: The Challenge by Rudolf Dreikurs and Vicki Stolz. Though first published in 1956, the ideas and tips for parents are timeless. Constructive, practical ways to understand and manage children’s misbehavior are clearly explained. The many examples in each chapter are realistic and reassuring. It’s true that babies don’t come with a manual. But a book like this one comes close.
Understanding and Managing Children’s Misbehavior

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Understanding and Managing Children’s Misbehavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 Jun 2018 (Originally: 23 Jun 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 Jun 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.