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Changing Children’s Behavior — Part I

What do we mean when we say our child is misbehaving? It comes down to this: The kid is doing something we don’t like. The problem gets compounded by worries: Maybe we’re worried that our child won’t be able to get along with others. Maybe we’re worried that other people won’t like him. Maybe we’re even worried that other people will think we’re bad parents for not putting a stop to what the child is doing. The focus in all these instances is on the child. We see the child as misbehaving so we try to find the right consequence or threat or bribe that will make him behave the way we want him to.

One of my best teachers was Rudolf Dreikurs, a wise and compassionate man with a thick Austrian accent. He often admonished his students, “When you have a problem with a child, you first have to look at zee total zituation.” He emphasized that sometimes the child is just fine. The child is not a problem child. Rather, it’s the situation that is creating the problem. When that is the case, all the lecturing, coaxing, praising, punishing, cajoling, pleading, and nagging that adults are so good at are doomed to failure. Focusing on making the child be different only hurts the child and frustrates the adult. It’s the situation, not the child, that needs to be understood, changed, or managed.

When a child is doing something you don’t like, take the time to run yourself through this checklist before you intervene. You will save yourself a lot of aggravation and you will spare your child the confusion of being asked to manage something that she can’t help.

1. The basics: Is the child hungry, tired, or needing exercise?

Any parent knows that a tired and hungry child who has been cooped up in the house for three days due to bad weather is not the best company. Sometimes it’s harder to remember that a delayed lunch or a missed nap can also be a setup for a tantrum.

One mother I was seeing in therapy regularly complained to me that her two little daughters, ages 3 and 2, were constantly crabby. Then I spotted her and the kids at the grocery store at 11 p.m. several weeks in a row. (Yes, I shop then. I enjoy the alone time.) The next time I saw her, I asked why she had the girls up so late. She said she couldn’t stand a crowded store and since the kids could sleep late, she didn’t see it as a problem to do late night shopping a couple of times a week. She didn’t understand that interrupting the kids’ sleep cycle every couple of days was what was turning her sweet girls into little monsters.

2. Is it medical?

I learned about this one the hard way. When my third-born was about 4, there was a week when he became really cranky and impossible. He whined. He demanded. When asked to do something, he threw himself on the ground and refused to budge. I wasn’t very sympathetic. I knew he was getting everything he needed. When asked, he said nothing was wrong. He just didn’t feel like doing anything. He didn’t have a fever so I ruled out illness. Exasperated, I finally took him to the doctor anyway. Imagine how guilty I felt when it turned out he had a major ear infection. Sometimes a child isn’t misbehaving. He’s behaving like a sick child who can’t tell you in words that something just doesn’t feel right.

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An important hint to a medical problem is when the behavior is the same across settings. If your usually sweet child is being impossible at daycare, on the playground, and at home, he may not be misbehaving. He may be in some kind of medical distress. Constipation, urinary tract infections, ear infections, allergies and other medical issues can turn your lamb into a bear.

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part I

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. 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.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Changing Children’s Behavior — Part I. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.