What is Misbehavior?

by Kelly Bartlett on June 22, 2011

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“Children don’t misbehave, they simply behave to get their needs met.”

This quote comes from Dr. Thomas Gordon, but other psychologists and parent educators have said the same thing. Dr. Jane Nelsen devotes a whole section of her book, Positive Discipline, as well as lessons in her parenting classes to understanding children’s mistaken goals of behavior. The underlying concept is that behaviors like crying, whining, tantrums, lying, hitting, destroying property, etc. all stem from a child’s unmet need. There is something that child is needing that they’re not getting, so they behave in a way to try to meet those needs. Dr. Nelsen calls them “Mistaken Goals” because the child is often mistaken about how to behave in a way to meet their need

Last week, I saw a lady set a full cup of iced coffee next to her on the bench near where her 1-year-old daughter was toddling around. The little girl kept going over to it and picking it up, wanting to turn it over. The mom continually called her “naughty” and asked if she needed a time-out. If this mother understood the relationship between needs and behavior, she’d know that her daughter was not being naughty and that a time-out won’t solve anything. At one year old, this child’s need is to explore her environment using all of her senses; she is not misbehaving, she’s doing exactly what a one-year-old needs to do.

Looks like someone "needed" to see if the cake was cool!

We all behave in ways to get what we need. If I need something to eat, I’ll go to the kitchen and make myself some food. If need some order in my life, I’ll clean my house. If I need a renewed sense of community, I’ll turn on my sociability as I make an effort to connect with friends and neighbors. If I’m feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated, I might subconsciously distance myself from others as I attempt to carve out some alone time for myself (if I don’t realize what I need), or I might just say, “Hey, I need some alone time,” (if I do).

Kids aren’t as astute at knowing how to meet their needs as we grownup are. Sometimes even we don’t behave in the most appropriate ways to get what we need. A child is much less capable of identifying and articulating what they need, and instead they reach out through their behavior. What looks like “misbehavior” is actually a child’s misguided attempt to fulfill a need that’s not being met. As any parent knows, hunger and sleep are two of the most common needs that, when unmet, trigger all kinds of “colorful” behaviors in children. Other needs that children have are emotional, and are equally as important as physical needs:

  • Empathy; children need validation and acceptance of their thoughts and feelings
  • Belonging; children need to know that they matter and that they have an importance place in the family
  • Autonomy; children need to have choices and independence
  • Connection; children need to be heard and understood

The most common “misbehaviors” we see in our children are most likely the result of one of those needs not being met. I see it in my own kids. Just a few days ago, Elia was acting extra whiny and clingy, and I was getting frustrated wondering why. But after a weekend of fewer household projects and more of my focused attention, she got the connection she needed (and I hadn’t noticed she needed), and the clinginess subsided.

Misbehavior? On the contrary, purposeful destruction that meets JJ's need for tactile stimulation.

And I know that sometimes JJ can’t/ won’t/ doesn’t want to do anything to help around the house; he acts like his contributions don’t matter. He thinks that he doesn’t matter. But when John and I break down tasks and help him get through little jobs, he sees and feels his own success. He understands how much he helps the family, and he gains a needed sense of significance and belonging.

I strive to remind myself that misbehavior isn’t really what it seems and therefore doesn’t require “discipline.” As an attachment parent, my response to my kids’ “misbehavior” is less about applying appropriate disciplinary action and more about meeting the underlying needs. It’s proactive. It’s respectful. It’s loving. It’s a reminder that misbehavior isn’t malicious, it’s human nature.

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Kelly Bartlett (35 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids". She is an API leader, Certified Positive Discipline Educator, and freelance writer with a focus on child development, family relationships, and discipline. Follow her blog at Parenting From Scratch.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Allison June 22, 2011 at 5:41 am

Great post, but also important to note that an understanding of child devlopment will go a long way to understanding some of those underlying needs.

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Elaine June 22, 2011 at 6:16 am

Good approach in theory but how to practice it? My 7 month old will not let me change her dirty nappy without a huge fuss. I try to pin her down to prevent her rolling in her own poo, get her cleaned and get her new nappy on, and she screams. Maybe she needs autonomy that I am denying her, but I have to prevent her putting her hands in her poo and then in her mouth otherwise she will get sick. I try to explain this to her (even though she probably is too young to understand) but I try anyway but it makes no difference. My point is sometimes children have a need that you just can’t meet either because another need (safety) is more important or because parents are limited in resources like time. So you can’t always solve problems just by meeting a need. Sometimes you just have to use your own physical power to physically prevent a child from doing something, however unpleasant it may be for both.

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Kelly June 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Elaine, absolutely! You’re right that she does have a need…to constantly explore her environment using all of her senses and abilities, which include rolling over and crawling and just generally not standing still! :)

She also needs to be clean and phycially healthy, and remaining in a dirty diaper or touching her hands to it and then to her mouth is just not an option. As her mom, you will meet her needs on all accounts, and at only 7 months old, it is phycially impossible for her to understand your reasonable explanations for your decisions. Her brain simply isn’t developped enough.

So, yes, it’s important to understand that the need behind her behavior is that developing autonomy, but the need for a clean diaper momentarily trumps it!

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c June 29, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Try elimination communication :)

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denny hagel June 22, 2011 at 7:37 am

Wonderful article that gives parents answers to many questions and conflicts that are common while raising children!

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Danie June 22, 2011 at 7:37 am

This is a great way to look at it!
I’m already being told that my daughter is spoiled because she has a tendency to cling to me even though I am home with her all day. She is only 8mos old and is cutting her first tooth. I figure it is just a phase and nothing that needs to be ‘fixed’. However, the family that is constantly telling me my daughter is spoiled are very traditional in their parenting/discipline beliefs and already talk about the punishment my daughter is sure to receive.

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comadrona June 23, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Danie, take no notice of the “spoiler” brigade. It is totally normal for babies, under 1 y.o. especially, to stick like glue to their mums. I found that attachment parenting of my younger two (unfortunately I didn’t know enough to do it with the older two) produced the empathetic, independent, healthy, co-operative young people they are now. That is not to say my older two are terrible but they are less secure in themselves and perhaps more selfish, probably because I was so much more rigid with them (based on other people’s advice and opinions). Well nourished (emotionally speaking) children have a great firm springboard from which to take off to explore the world.

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Juju June 22, 2011 at 10:43 am

So what need isn’t being met that causes my son to spit in my drink or to pee on me?

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comadrona June 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Hi Juju, I guess it depends on how old he is! If he is really young he might not yet understand the “yucky” implications of body fluids going where they are not wanted. Has he seen somebody else disrespecting someone in this way? Is he “giving” you part of himself or “sharing”? Perhaps some concentrated attention might divert him…it is so hard to work it out, isn’t it?

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Kelly June 24, 2011 at 8:02 pm

It really depends on a lot of things…I’d need to know more about the situation in which the behavior is occuring to offer some insight. How old is he? How long has he been doing these things? When did each start? Does it always happen at a certain time of day? During a certain activity? How do you feel when it happens? How does he react? Are there any stressors going on in his life? Any new changes? Is he very sensitive? Very physical? It can be so hard to see at first, but there really is a source form which this behavior is originating. It has to do with how your son sees the world, what he believes about himself, how he feels, and especially what he needs.

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MaMammalia June 22, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I couldn’t agree more! I like how you’ve broken it down into a few essential emotional needs. Very useful points of reference.

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Courtney June 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

So true. Also important to note is that part of exploring is learning boundaries, for safety, etc. Of course, there are gentle ways to show kids those boundaries.

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Amy Cartwright June 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm

I really like this. My baby is only 5 months old so we’re not really to the point of “misbehavior” yet but then again, maybe children of any age usually aren’t “misbehaving.” Great food for thought.

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Mobo June 24, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Funny, my 84-year-old grandma sums up some of the psychological underpinning of this philosophy in a saying she’s always used: “Attention I want, attention I crave, if I don’t get it, I’ll misbehave.” Granted, just giving more attention isn’t always the answer, but it’s gotten me thinking that my child’s behavior (or “misbehavior”) may often originate from something I’m doing or not doing in terms of interacting with her.

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Emily Hudson November 29, 2012 at 2:01 am

Misbehavior is a part of the human development and that’s a good thing! As we have all been misbehaving through or at some point in our lives. Unless your child feels the guilt of misbehavior, you cannot expect them overcome it. May be you could give him an ice candy to divert his attention from misbehaving in public or at school! 

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