Why do kids misbehave?


Rosie Byrnes


Misbehavior is a guaranteed side effect of being a kid; no parent, teacher, or caregiver is exempt from witnessing it occasionally!

Misbehaving is a guaranteed side effect of being a kid; no parent, teacher, or caregiver is exempt from witnessing it occasionally. Even the “well-behaved” kids will sometimes act out, and while we might have an inkling of where it’s coming from, we’re often left baffled at the choices our kids make.

So why do kids misbehave—and what can we do about it?

Kids always have a reason for doing what they do—even if that reason isn’t always clear to us as adults. One of the strongest needs of all human beings (no matter how small) is that of belonging. Kids are especially drawn to feelings of belongingness, significance, and approval from their peers and adults; no kid wants to be in trouble, after all. But somehow, they find themselves getting into trouble anyway.

Often, when kids feel that they don’t belong, they search for other ways to feel significant. And this can lead to less-than-perfect behavior, all in the name of feeling like they matter to somebody.

One method, called Positive Discipline, works to understand why kids may turn to misbehavior. From the understanding that kids are really longing for a sense of belonging and significance, the Positive Discipline approach breaks down misbehavior into four categories that they call mistaken goals.

From the Positive Discipline perspective, all misbehavior can be traced to one of these four goals. While kids may not always be able to express the reasoning behind why they misbehave, it’s likely that it began somewhere within these four categories.

The four mistaken goals:

  • Undue Attention
  • Misguided Power
  • Revenge
  • Assumed Inadequacy

Let’s look at each of these more closely to understand what underlying beliefs are driving our kids’ misbehavior, and what we can do to help.

Undue attention

to keep others busy or get a special service

Kids with the mistaken goal of Undue Attention feel that they need to seek validation from somebody else (often an adult). They misbehave in order to determine whether or not they are important—or at least, more important than whatever you’re doing right now!

Undue Attention might look like:

  • Repeating negative behavior to get a reaction from you
  • Refusing to complete tasks without help (when they can do it by themselves)
  • Asking you to complete tasks for them.

The child’s underlying belief: “I’m important only when I get special attention from you, or when I’m keeping you busy.”

What not to do: Don’t do things for the child that they can do for themselves. Don’t give them constant reminders or bargain with them to stop the behavior. Don’t try to rescue the child or fix the problem yourself.

Instead, try this: Ignore the behavior and have faith in the child’s ability to deal with their feelings on their own. Tell the child that you care, and then say what you will do (for example, “I love you and I will play with you after lunch.”) Involve them in a useful task to gain useful attention—for example, by asking them to be a volunteer in front of the class, or by having them help you set the table for dinner.

Why? When children engage in misbehavior stemming from undue attention, they believe that they are not important unless they are being noticed. Giving in only reaffirms this belief, and teaches them that they were right to seek attention through misbehaving. It can be difficult to ignore our kids when we know that they are unhappy—but there will be times when they go unnoticed in life, too, and it’s important for them to learn how to deal with disappointment without seeking approval from you.

Misguided power

to be the boss

Kids with the mistaken goal of Misguided Power are often the kids who feel the most powerless—and are desperate to prove otherwise. They may seek their own power by undermining yours, or by misbehaving to prove that no one else can control them.

Misguided Power might look like:

  • Refusing to do what they are told
  • Bossing other children around
  • Challenging adults’ authority
  • Saying “you can’t make me”

The child’s underlying belief: “I belong only when I’m in control, or proving that no one can boss me around.”

What not to do: Don’t engage in a power struggle with a child, and don’t give in.

Instead, try this: Give them choices instead of demanding them to do something. Acknowledge that you can’t force them to do anything. Then, ask them for help or give them an important job to do. Develop routines that can “be the boss”. Take a moment to cool down before deciding what to do together.

Why? When children feel powerless, they may seek power through defiance or other way to misbehave. We do want to empower kids in positive ways, so squashing their misguided attempt to empower themselves isn’t really going to solve the problem—and engaging in a power struggle only confirms the child’s mistaken belief that they are not respected. Asking them for help and giving them choices, on the other hand, tells the child that they do have an important role, and agency over their own lives—so there’s no need for them to prove that they are in control.


to get even

If a child’s mistaken goal is Revenge, they may misbehave to express their hurt feelings or attempt to make others feel the same pain that they feel. Sometimes, misbehavior based on revenge isn’t even directed at the person who hurt the child’s feelings in the first place—for example, a child who is feeling hurt or neglected at home may take out their feelings on a teacher or classmate at school.

Revenge might look like:

  • Aggressive or hurtful words and actions
  • Insults
  • Personal attacks

The child’s underlying belief: “I don’t think I can be liked, so I will hurt others in the way I feel hurt.”

What not to do: Don’t retaliate, and don’t take the child’s behavior personally. Don’t give lectures or advice without listening to their feelings first.

Instead, try this: Validate that the child feels hurt, and invite them to share how and why they are feeling that way. Take a break to cool down, then come back together to find a solution and make amends. Encourage their strengths and invite them to think of a better solution for next time.

Why? When they feel hurt, kids will often seek revenge—sometimes by hurting someone else’s feelings (even if that person wasn’t originally involved). When you retaliate or punish them without first validating their feelings, this only adds to their sense of being misunderstood, and doesn’t show them a better way to work through their feelings.

Assumed inadequacy

to give up and be left alone

Kids with the mistaken goal of Assumed Inadequacy have already decided that they can’t do something that everyone else can do—they have given up on themselves. They feel that they have failed to meet others’ expectations, so their misbehavior is an attempt to lower others’ expectations of them even further.

Assumed Inadequacy might look like:

  • Refusing to try
  • Distracting self or others instead of working on a difficult task
  • Cheating or copying

The child’s underlying belief: “I don’t believe I can belong, so I will show others not to expect anything of me.”

What not to do: Don’t give up on them—this only confirms their mistaken belief that they’re not worth the effort of helping them. Don’t criticize their attempts to try, however small. Don’t pity the student or do the task for them.

Instead, try this: Break the task down into smaller, more manageable steps, and make yourself available if they need help—but still encourage them to do it on their own. Show faith in the child and their abilities. Encourage positive attempts and celebrate successes. Enjoy the child for who they are, and build on their individual strengths and interests.

Why? The child with the mistaken goal of assumed inadequacy has already given up on belonging. This child needs encouragement and support to regain their sense of purpose and their self-confidence. They need to believe that they can do it—so they need to know that you believe in them, too.

All behavior starts with a belief.

For kids, who are learning to understand the world and find their place in it for the first time, a sense of belonging and significance is of the highest importance.

As much as we may not like to admit it, adults really do tend to forget what it’s like to be a kid. The result is often disheartening. We punish misbehavior without first trying to understand where it is coming from. We lecture our kids based on our own thoughts and beliefs, without stopping to consider that theirs might not be the same. And we feel guilty and uncertain when our methods don’t seem to be helping.

So rather than continuing to engage in a cycle of negative beliefs and misbehaving, we can start doing things differently. We can take the time to step into our kids’ shoes and understand what’s really going on underneath the behavior—because odds are, their thoughts and emotions are more complex than we ever gave them credit for.

In order to understand our kids’ misbehavior, we first need to take the time to truly understand our kids.