Why Do Kids Misbehave?

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Have you ever found yourself wondering why? Why must this child test my limits? Why can’t they just listen the first time? I know I have. In the past, I assumed that if a child wasn’t doing what they were supposed to, it was intentional. They were just being naughty. Now I realize that most of the time, kids are doing the best they can at any given moment.

There are many reasons kids misbehave besides defiance. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson say it well; “Sometimes we assume that our kids won’t behave the way we want them to, when in reality, they simply can’t, at least not in this particular moment” (No-Drama Discipline page 17).

Here are some common circumstances which make it harder for kids to act their best.

Feeling hungry or tired

These two might be obvious, but they are still worth mentioning. I love that hangry is a real word now, because I definitely experience it! If I miss breakfast, I have a hard morning. We need food to function. If a child seems to be struggling more than usual, try to remember the last time they ate. Has it been too long?

Most adults I know don’t function well without enough sleep. When we are sleep deprived we are more emotional, and we don’t problem solve well. It would be ridiculous to expect a child (whose brain isn’t fully developed) to behave perfectly when they are tired. If they had a late night, be prepared to have a little more patience with them the next day.

Needing more instruction on how to do something

When my class began an assignment, I would walk the aisles between desks to help my students and keep them focused. Inevitably, there would be one or two kids who weren’t working on it. As a new teacher I would usually say, “Time to get started,” or “This needs to be finished, get to work.” These statements assume that kids are sitting there for no good reason.

After some conversations with wiser teachers, I changed my approach. Now I assumed that a child who wasn’t working was a child who might need help. I would ask, “Do you understand the directions?” or “Do you need some help getting started?” I was amazed to realize how often my students had real reasons that they hadn’t started yet. Sometimes they would let me know that they were confused about a concept. I was able to find out what they needed to help them be successful.

If a child is struggling with something at home, try explaining it better. Instead of saying, “Be careful,” try, “carry that cup with two hands so it won’t spill.” Explain how to do the things you want them to do.

Needing connection

I had a student who experimented with various ways of disrupting lessons. I tried some of my usual tricks, to no avail. I began to feel frustrated and upset with him, but when I stopped to think through his situation, the answer became clear. He was new to the school, and most of the kids already knew each other from the previous year. He felt vulnerable, and he desperately wanted to be liked, so he tried to draw attention to himself by misbehaving in class.

I pulled him aside one day to talk with me before recess started. I said, “I noticed something about you. You’re funny, and the other kids like you for that. I love that you’re funny too. I’m glad that you make me smile. Lately, I’ve noticed that you want to be funny during class time. This makes it hard for me to teach. Let’s make a deal. If you can behave well in class, I will give you special chances to be funny. How does that sound?” He loved the idea and agreed. He actually did try a lot harder after that! He needed to know that he was loved and accepted.

There are lots of situations that will make kids feel insecure about their relationships. Some of these are: a recent move, a new baby in the family, and a new school year. Kids who are misbehaving at these times might just need more one-on-one time and love from the adults in their lives.

They are experiencing an emotional struggle

When we feel better, we act better, and vice versa. Are they experiencing insecurity, a difficult friendship, or academic struggle? All of these can lead kids to act out from frustration.

Yes, undoubtedly there are times when kids misbehave to test our limits or to spite us, and I’m not claiming that we should excuse poor behavior or save kids from consequences. We should absolutely follow through with natural consequences when a child misbehaves, but understanding why they are acting a certain way can help us to react in a calm, empathetic way. Kids desperately need our love, especially when they are misbehaving. A little understanding can go a long way.

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  • Kim
    9 months ago

    These are all great reminders!
    My 4 year old usually doesn’t nap anymore, but occasionally she gets really emotional and starts throwing lots of tantrums. We always add a naptime to our day when we start with a morning like that and it always solves the problem.

  • Lindsey Givens
    8 months ago

    I have an 18 month old, so this is great! It is so easy to get frustrated with toddlers but remembering to look at it from there perspective is the key! Great post!

  • Baudy
    8 months ago

    Even though my kids are 19 and 15 years old I really enjoyed reading this post. I have a nephew that’s 4 years old and these tips come in handy. Great job keep up the good work.

  • Katina Horton
    8 months ago

    Great post and one for us to remember even when our kids get older. Blessings!

  • Andrea
    8 months ago

    I really enjoyed reading this post. It actually gave me reassurance on my own child. I have a boy who has ADHD and thrives on making others laugh (even at not so great of times). Maybe using some of these tactics would greatly help in improving his behaviors. Thank you so much for the great advice!

    • firmhappymom
      8 months ago

      I’m glad it’s helpful! Good luck!

  • Judy
    8 months ago

    Great post.
    These items apply to adults as much as they do kids. We are too quick to judge kids by the way they behave. Mine are teens and older now but for a long time i’ve tried to help them figure out for themselves why they are behaving a certain way by being self aware. Know when you are cranky and excuse yourself from people so that you don’t start snapping at others. Know when you need a nap or are hungry etc. simple things and yet they seem so complicated at times.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Judy @sensibledove

    • firmhappymom
      8 months ago

      Yes! Good point. Being self aware is so important. Taking the time to teach this to our kids will make a huge difference.

  • Lisa
    8 months ago

    Kids can be such complex little people. There is always something going on inside their heads and often there are times when we really have no idea what’s going on inside of them. It can be hard to remember this, especially when kids misbehave.

    • firmhappymom
      8 months ago

      Definitely. Our emotions often get in the way of us seeing this in the moment! Trying to think about how they are feeling can be so helpful though.

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