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 (36 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.

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