The Real Reason Kids Misbehave Again and Again – And How to Stop It

The Real Reason Kids Misbehave Again and Again – And How to Stop It

Why Children Misbehave And How To Help Them Do Better

It was mid morning at playgroup and tension was rising between Theo, his mother and a phone. The phone was perfectly placed on the edge of a table. Peeking out just enough for tiny hands to want to reach up and touch. So Theo kept trying to do just that.

Never mind the incessant don’ts from his mother …They meant absolutely nothing to little Theo. Nothing!

Testing his luck and his mom’s patience with that glorious phone seemed like the one and only item on the morning’s to do list.

So shiny! So interesting! So irresistible!

Each time Theo came close, his mom would nudge him to the side.

 “Didn’t you hear me? Don’t touch! Or… we are going home. Is that what you want? To go home?”

Rinse and repeat.

Until Theo was on the floor. Crying, flailing and now beyond desperate to reach that phone.

“Phone! Have phone! Phone!” Tears…tears….tears….

Eyes fixed on her little boy, Theos mom had that look. That look of love mixed with total frustration and bewilderment. If you have ever cared for a toddler, you probably know the look and feeling. It usually shows up when trying to understand toddler misbehavior. Especially unwanted, repetitive unhelpful behavior.

Why do children continue to misbehave after being asked NOT to do something?

At two years old, little Theo had been trying to explore his surrounding.

He had been trying over and over again to connect with his mom. And To have fun with the shiny phone.

On that day in playgroup, Theo wasn’t misbehaving.He was behaving exactly as a two year old is likely to behave.

With curiosity and determination. A determination to meet his needs for connection,attention and discovery.

All normal and healthy children will misbehave.

Because children are still growing and learning and well, they are human. Totally wonderful yet imperfect little beings that make loads of mistakes on their learning journey.

What You need To Know About  Misbehavior

Understanding and stopping our children’s misbehavior is going to be a daily thing in the early years. Of course we would rather children listen and stop the very first time we ask them to do so.  It would be just great if our children would not cry, whine, tantrum, lie, hit or engage in otherwise unhelpful behaviors.

Children Need Your Guidance To Do Better.

Unhelpful and unnecessary behavior from young children should always be addressed. Especially if it is behavior that keeps repeating itself over and over again.

The problem?  Traditional “disciplinary actions” for these bad, repetitive behaviors don’t usually work. 

Warning, Time Outs, taking toys away and saying don’t, do not invite helpful behaviors. Because they do not highlight a child’s capabilities or tease out any underlying needs or issues.

better-behavior-positive-parenting

Like in the case of Theo, the more his mom warned him to leave the phone alone, the more his behavior escalated.  He tried everything, from getting on tipp toes, to climbing, to tugging on her sleeve. Anything really until he reached total frustration levels and broke into a tantrum.

This happened because children choose unhelpful behaviors when they have unmet needs.

When Children Know Better But Choose To Misbehave

Theo kept reaching for that phone, even though his mom had told him not to do it many times.  Can you think of a time when you have asked your child not to do something, more than once, maybe even ten times, and yet they still did that very thing anyways?

Misbehavior and Unmet Needs

While children are very capable and intelligent, they don’t necessarily have the life experience, maturity and self control to make appropriate choices all the time. (We know that even adults struggle with this at times … at least I do when it comes to chocolate!)

better-behavior-positive-parenting-1

If you have ever been with a toddler that insists on wearing a crown to sleep or taking spatula to the bathroom you may have seen this process in action.

Let’s not even bring up issues like cutting toast the wrong way or little hands that just keep hitting the cat.  It all looks like “misbehavior” and “tantrums” and “stubbornness” but actually it is a child’s misguided attempt to fulfill a need she has.

What do children need

  • Children need validation and acceptance of their thoughts and feelings.
  • Children need a sense of belonging and knowing they have an importance place in the family.
  • Children need to make choices and experiment with independence.
  • Children need loving touch, closeness,attention and stability
  • Children need  to be respected, heard and understood.
  • Children need an environment in which they are safe to explore.
  • Children need unconditional love.

When needs go unmet, children tend to show us behaviors that are not helpful. Often they will repeat those behaviors simply because we haven’t been able to decode the need driving it all.

We can help our child want to and be able to choose a better behavior by slowing down for a moment and tuning into the child’s needs.

The Four Questions You Can Ask to Stop Unwanted Behaviors

  1. Is there a need for me to stop what I am doing and address this unhelpful behavior by connecting with my child?
  2. Does my child have a physical or emotional need that is going unmet?
  3. Do I need to set a kind and clear limit for my child?
  4. Does my child need a safe alternative or better instructions?

In Practice it can work like this:

  1. Theo’s mom got up and helped him with his tantrum by staying present and close by.
  2. Theo’s mom validated his needs and desire to play with the phone once the tears had passed  “you wanted to play with my phone and I didn’t let you.”
  3. Theo’s mom put the phone away to reduce frustration (kind) and have out of reach (clear).
  4. Theo’s mom gave him some alternatives “You can play with the play-dough or choose a ride on toy”

After Theo had calmed down with his mom’s help, he was able to enjoy the rest of playgroup and didn’t even bother going close to the table or purse that had the phone.

repetitive misbehavior

Misbehavior isn’t always what is seems and so it doesn’t always require “discipline” as much as it requires a parent willing to decode or understand what is going on underneath it all. If a child is choosing to misbehave, it’s because they need guidance from someone that they can trust to find a better path.

Let me know in comments if you are struggling with a repetitive misbehavior that just can’t seem to get solved. Also, If this was helpful to you, sign up for our newsletter and I’ll send you more positive parenting tools and resources right in your inbox.

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

Related Reading

The Positive Discipline Series by Jane Nelsen explores unhelpful behaviors and explains the Mistaken Goals of misbehavior.

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

29 Responses to The Real Reason Kids Misbehave Again and Again – And How to Stop It

  1. My 9 & 12 year old procrastinate starting their homework. We have a snack & talk & a little free time when they get home. But they put off starting homework & I often resort to threats to get them started. Sometimes positive reinforcements like a treat after they’re started help but not always.

    • So I am wondering if your 9 and 12 year old are waiting for things to escalate in order to know you mean business? Sometimes, while well meaning, we create routines like this that feel very challenging and negative but become almost the expectation. So how to turn something like this around? What happens if you pass the responsibility for homework onto your children? Can you decide how many reminders YOU are willing to give them and stick with that? Let them know your decision so that it doesn’t come as a surprise. In your shoes I might say something like “I made a decision, from now on, homework is 100% your guys responsibility, so after snack and such, I will ask you one time, and one time only if you have a plan for getting it done. after that, it’s up to you to get started and ask for any help you may need. Do you understand what I have decided?” The question than beccomes, how comfortable can you get with allowing them to face their choices? What is the worst that happens if they don’t get their homework done? Is it better for them to learn NOW while the stakes are lower about being responsible for their own work — than later having them always rely on you to get them started? If the goal is to set them up to be responsible – can you see yourself handing over some responsibility? Many parents that take this route later see what a relief and what a positive change this can be for the whole family!! Basically, unless the children see the value in caring for their own homework they will rely on you to do that for them – and is that what you really want? I hope some of these questions helps you. Thank you for sharing your challenges.

  2. My 5 year old is struggling at school. He continues to be loud or disrupt the class. He is constantly being sent out of his class, to the hallway or to another class, as punishment. His punishment began with secluding him from the group and placing him at a designated table by himself just outside of the open classroom setting (3 kindergarten classes that share one commons space with smaller spaces that are separated by coat closets and chalk boards). He is frequently in trouble for being aggressive with other children at school also. But when we take him to play with other children, he is the child who will let another kid push on him over and over and over again until I finally step in and say something. He has never hit back or pushed back in front of us. We have tried getting the school on board with positive reinforcements but his teacher and AP insist it will not work and seem to rely on sending him out of the class rather than dealing with the situation. This has started affecting our son at home also. When we try to redirect him or even begin telling him something we noticed, he immediately runs off and secludes himself and says when he’s bad he has to be alone. I feel he and his teacher have not made a connection and I have expressed my concern about that with her. She does not see their relationship as a problem. My son becomes very anxious when he has to speak with her without being with other children. What can we do to help him at school? At home, we can sooth and understand his feelings and actions and redirect them, at school this is not happening.Thank you!

    • Hi Maranda,
      This is a delicate situation and continuing to speak with the school sounds like a very important step here. Without knowing the situation personally I will venture a guess that your son is feeling discouraged and needing more of a sense of belonging to his classroom and connection to his teacher. I wonder if she would be open to a one on one meeting with you and him – not to discuss the “bad” stuff but simply to spend time getting to know each other. Another thing that comes to mind is allowing him a good deal of autonomy at home so he feels very capable and has a sense of contribution – does he do jobs at home or help you? Lastly, setting up daily special time with you would be very important to reinforce your role and bond so when he does feel upset he may be more likely to come to you instead of isolating himself. Positive Discipline in the classroom is a wonderful program – if you find a way to politely and kindly introduce it to the school teacher / principle this may help not just your son. I hope this is helpful to you.

  3. My 5 yr old Boy continues to disrupt the class when everybody is quiet and paying attention to the teacher. He screams and starts making funny noises. They have a mild punishment consequence for this…he is sent to the chart to move his name down to the red zone. The teacher says he doesn’t feel sorry or ashamed for it, he just stands up and walks to move his name down and comes back and screams again disrupting. He is very hyper. My guess is that he is doing it because the consequence involves doing something else other than sitting still listening to the teacher. So, although it is a punishment he doesn’t see it as such because he gets to stand up and stretch his legs and walk away from a place he rather not be. So, I think I have figure it out. What I can’t figure out is how to stop it. This started in Preschool when he figured out that the consequence to his screaming at circle time was awesome. Each time he screamed he got sent to the bathroom (inside the classroom) for a few minutes to calm down. But this was not a boring bathroom. It was a large bathroom with stuff he could play with, including the sink which he loved to play with. Now in Kinder, His teacher is trying to make him realize that his actions are hurting his friends ears. I also try to explain this to him without judging him or sound dissapointed. Husband in the other hand threatens him with taking things away if he doesn’t stop the bad behavior. Any advise will help. Thank you!

  4. I am having difficulty with my two year old puttnjng his food down the side of his high chair, which makes it fall to the floor. I ask him to eat his food, say “please don’t drop your food, we eat our food” things like that. Today I resorted to giving him a final warning and taking his food away. I know he was hungry so the problem isn’t lack of interest in food and I was sitting with him giving him attention as he ate. He of course got upset and cried and I was the most frustrated I’ve been in my short two yrs of parenting. This happens almost daily and I read your article but I don’t really know what unmet needs or he might have that makes him not want to listen. Today he was probably a little tired but as it happens almost daily I’m not sure that’s the problem. He know exactly what time asking him to do/not do.

    • Hi Jamie, I hear you on that frustration, food throwing around this age is common but it can bring up a lot of questions on what to do. Of course we want to be sure to offer plenty of healthy food and eating time and then we see all that food flying around it can be tricky to stay calm.

      Some ideas that can help reduce frustration with meal times for toddlers:
      start serving about 10 to 15 minutes earlier, before hunger has reached peek levels
      try just one bite of food at a time so there is nothing sitting there for squishing and throwing. If you are worried about portion sizes and keeping track of food amounts, simply serve the portion ahead of time and then serve from that plate onto the toddlers plate or eating surface.
      if you have a weaning table (short little table with little chairs) you can give that a try, many toddlers eat better with their feet firm on the ground
      Strive to end every the meal on a positive note – if there is food flying, offer a different something you have already prepared, if that is also refused you can go ahead and end the meal, try saying something matter of fact like “looks like you are all done” and move onto the next part of your routine. Some toddlers do better with a few small meals each day and this phase really can pass if you find a way to keep meals calm.
      Sarah Remmer is wonderful resource for nutrition and eating questions for toddlers – you might like this blog post of hers http://www.sarahremmer.com/the-1-reason-your-toddler-isnt-hungry-at-meals/ too!

  5. We have an almost 2 year old that is suddenly displaying a behaviour that we can’t figure out! He has always been a good eater, but recently meal times are stressful. We all sit around the table, him in a Tripp trap chair that is pushed up to the table too. But he seems to just not want to eat, twisting around in his chair constantly, banging his cup and spoon on the table, making faces, noises too. We ask him to eat his food, explain that we would like to eat as well, say no to standing up in his chair, etc. Have even tried taking him out of the chair and saying dinner is over (if he isn’t eating), but then he just gets up, because he is still hungry. Any advice on what to do?

    • Hi Emily,
      I think this situation is similar to Jamie (comment above) and wondering if a similar approach to what I replied to her would help you as well. Somethings that may help are watching out that your tot isn’t getting a snack very close to a meal, starting the meal sooner than later so that hunger is not overwhelming, serve only one bite on the tray or table – so no plate or cup at this stage (you can bring them back in time when meals are calmer again) be sure your 2 year old is safely secured in the chair so that you can eat in peace without worries of standing up / toppling over becoming an issue. You may want to try a small table / chair so feet are firm to the ground instead of a high chair. Notice the feeding time – if your tot is overtired, feed earlier, let him sleep and have dinner yourself later. Family meals are wonderful but its ok to adjust the timing and gradually get to having dinner all together – if for now it works best to focus on feeding your toddler, putting him to bed and then eating peacefully you are helping both of you find enjoyment in meals, which eventually, even within 6 months time you can then start doing together!! Hope that helps.

  6. My daughter 14 months has started pushing me away from the kitchen stove and get in between me and the cupboards and sook to be picked up. I know she wants my attention so I pick her up but I can’t cook tea this way so I play with some toys for 5 minutes with her but as soon as I go back to the kitchen she does it again.

    • Hi Nadine,
      Cooking with a toddler in the house is often challenging – in fact those last hours in the day are some of the hardest for parents to navigate in the early years. The good news is that I do believe that with some small changes you might find a way to get Tea prepared. One step is to trouble shoot the actual practical aspect, for example, do you think a carrier might work? A busy bin? or some other activity your daughter can do in the kitchen NEAR you? Another possibility is having your child stay close and be an assistant “hold this kitchen towel for me— lets wipe this together…” I know that can get time intensive, so really it’s not something you must do all the time, but a possibility to explore. Also if you must set a clear and calm limit “I can’t pick you up right now” and your toddler cries, know that this is not going to harm her. It’s simply life offering a tiny dose of disappointment, and if you stay present with her and talk her through it “I see you are sad I can’t pick you up” and then get what you need to get done quickly and then offer her a hug it really is alright. While it’s not easy to see a child upset, remember that this is not something you are doing to hurt her feelings, you are in fact trying to do something because you care about her – preparing her food! It’s a balancing game of your needs, her needs and the family needs so I would encourage you to trust her ability to wait for you, just a tiny bit more each day – while keeping some kind of activity available for her so she can choose to do that when she is ready. To clarify I am not saying “make her cry” but rather if she does cry, know that you can both reconnect and be ok together.

  7. My 6 year old son is very negative about everything. He speakers to us with disdain and will kick and hit us when he mets upset. He is easily frustrated. We’ve had a lot of changes and I realize I’ve treated him with anger often instead of empathy. I need advice. I want this to turn around for the better.

    • Hi Leslie,
      From your reflection on anger versus empathy, I would say keep going in exactly that direction. Frustration and anger tend to melt when children feel validated and heard. Some simple words to say to a frustrated child “I believe you” it doesn’t make the frustration go away, it doesn’t fix but it does open a window for you to listen or simply be present. Set limits on the hurtful behaviors and open space for the feelings. It’s a process, one that isn’t necessarily fast, but it is very helpful. “You can’t kick me, but I will listen t you.” Also I wonder if there is a way to find a few things your son can be in charge of? Six year old really like making choices and having appropriate amounts of decision making in their lives. Hope this helps!

  8. Hi ☺ my 2.5 year old continually physically hurts my 5 year old (who never does this to his little brother). …e.g. hitting (with fists, open hand, or with something in his hand), scatching, throwing things at him, biting (the biting has improved). Language skills are coming along great i.e. he speaks sentences, yet when frustration hits, he gets physical super quick. My 5 year old would never dream if being physical and is devastated when this happens over and over. My 5 year old just wants to get along but little brother gets super cranky very easily. Other than that they are best friends help! Can’t seem to stamp out this physical aggression. It has amped up since I dropped breastfeeds to once every 3-4 days instead of once a day.

    Regards
    Rachel.

    • Hi Rachel,

      I think your insights on having the aggression ramping up since you dropped the breastfeeding may be a clue that your 2.5 year old is seeking more connection. When the aggression shows up do you step in and stop that behavior – if yes this is a good step – limit the behavior with your words and with calm hands. It might sound like “I will not let you hit your brother” while holding his little hands. You may then step in to moderate (not judge but moderate) the conflict. “I see you are having a hard time – how can I help. Can you tell me what you are wanting to do?” Listen to both kids and help them problem solve – you may do more talking in these early years but with time they learn to problem solve mostly on their own. Another option if you are interested is to teach the 2.5 year old to say or sign HELP for when he feels frustrated. Also have you considered a possibility of substituting the bf for short special time or one-on-one time with the 2.5 year old? This will help him have his connection cup nice and full several times a day – even just 5 minutes for hugs, a short story, game or cuddle goes a long way. It’s a 5 minute investment that often saves you hours of tears, tantrums and kicks in the long term 🙂 Hope that helps.

  9. My almost 2 year old bucks his hips during dirty diaper changes. So far distraction has been my biggest help but doesn’t always work. I want him to lay still so I can clean him up. I also have trouble keeping him still during teeth brishing time.

  10. My 2 1/2 year old son has been saying ‘butt head’ over and over- and I’ve tried to get down and look and give him alternative things he can say, I’ve tried saying that the bathroom is the only place he can talk like that, etc, but he seems obsessed with continuing! Especially because older brother (5) knows that it is not something we say in our home and makes a biggg deal about it each time. Kind of at a loss, but I appreciated the article!

    • You know when a song is stuck in our minds and we can’t seem to stop humming it? I bet this butt head thing has become just so very interesting – especially if your five year old is making a big fuss, the younger child must feel absolutely thrilled to see what he can awaken in his brother!! I would enlist the 5 year old’s help – make it sound like a really cool job – and tell him if he hears butt head to become totally silent or to suggest to you that you play / do something (basically ignore that word in favor of doing something else) – if the word becomes a non issue for a few days I bet it will no longer be interesting 🙂

  11. My 4 1/2 year old started school this year. He had been in daycare since he was 11 months and have never had a problem. In may of this year we had our second child and things before she was born started to get bad. He wasn’t listening and started misbehaving. Now since school he has gotten way worse. In class he disrupts, hits, spits at kids he has hit teachers more than once. They try to remove him from class to “cool” down. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. He is yelling and when asked to stay quiet he gets louder. You ask him to help pick up he yells at you. I’ve tried time out he Freaks out almost hyperventilating. School is having a meeting on what to try to do with him. I’ve tried rewards, sticker charts, nothing seems to work. It’s like he just doesn’t care. When you try to talk to him he listens for a min then tries to totally change the subject to something different.

    • Hi Kim,
      Thank you for sharing your story. Age four brings with it plenty of challenges and it sounds like your son has had to navigate a few changes, like a new baby and new school. As you noticed, rewards, sticker charts and time outs usually don’t bring about much lasting change. One thing I wonder if it would help would be to start having daily special time with your child – allow him to choose exactly what you two will do together – set aside 10 to 20 minutes and let your son lead the play. Focus only on your son, follow his lead, play games, chase, peek-a-book, whatever he invites you to do, try to be very present with him. When the time is up, thank him and let him know you can have special time again the next day… you may initially need time beyond the play time to listen to any tears and protests that may come up after the timer rings that time is up! this is a normal part of this helpful parenting tool as children need a time to release frustrations with a person they love and trust). After you have done several days of special time – really several days – try bringing up a conversation about how he feels about having a baby brother. I am going to guess he may have somethings to say about this, and I would encourage you to listen just with the intent to understand his point of view. Sharing MOM is tough!! PS – The special time cannot be used as a bribe or threat and best if built into your daily routine. Additionally, it may be helpful to reflect on ways you can set CLEAR and KIND limits when his behavior is out of bounds. Time in may be initially a lot of work but very likely to help you. This will be a process, not a perfect path – I hope the teachers will be open to talking with you to find a positive resolution to disrupting the class.

  12. I have 2, almost 3 year old twins (a boy and girl). At bedtime they will not lay in their cribs. They jump in their beds, talk to each other, sing, anything but sleep. It takes about 2- 3 hours to get them to go to bed. I sit by their cribs and even with my presence they still will not lay down. I have two older children as well snd I have to miss out on bed time with them because it takes so long to get the twins to sleep. We are short on bedrooms and cant really separate them and most nights it is just me putting all four to bed. I end the night feeling drained and frustrated with no time for a break for myself. I try to limit my words and interactions but that doesnt seem to help. If i leave the room they automatically get out of their beds. Any suggestions would be so appreciated.

  13. My kindergartener continually tries to make the other kids in his class laugh. It is disruptive for the teacher. Also he can’t seem to keep his hands off the dog at home. He is very rough with the dog. He is an only. Any insight??

  14. I have a four year old who always does exactly what I tell her not to do and no punishment works. I get So frustrated with her I’m at a loss of what to do about it. If I go to school full time at the moment and I don’t have the time I’d like to spend with my kids that I’d like. Just tired of these fights. We just wind up both angry and frustrated.

  15. I’m an experienced mom, my oldest is 15, but we started over and now have a toddler. It’s been so long since my boys were little, I can’t remember if they fought the car seat quite as emphatically as their sister does. It has just started, but every time we have to go somewhere, she pops her hips forward and I can’t buckle her in. She is very strong, and I can’t push her down without hurting her. I’ve started reminding her about getting in and buckling up, but it hasn’t helped yet. She just looks at me with this mischievous little grin. Help! What am I missing?

  16. My 4 yr old struggles with managing behaviour and his feelings. He has 3 older brothers and can be very loving. he is also very clever . The problem is he can be very rough. .he went through a biting stage..he also picked up some bad words that he just seems to say all time at home..not at preschool or childminders! He went through a spout of pushing and it looked like over the last 3 wks his behaviour had really improved so his keywoeker hasnt felt the need to monitor him so closely but i picked him up from preschool today to find he had kicked someone in the head..this other boy was on floor irritating him and getting in his way..I was so embarrassed. we use time out at home and I’m just at a loss on how to manage his behaviour when he’s like this. He struggled with communication due to a speech delay and has only really come on a lot over the last year but his behaviour is unacceptable. I myself work at another preschool and deal with behaviours similar to this but I’m not there to follow him round all day.

  17. My 2 -1/2 yo son hit us every time we say something like, be careful, no, that’s no nice. When accidentally while playing he fells and come to me or husband and hit us. Every time ww say something about a bad action/behavior, he hits. He also do it with other kids around, when others grab the toy he was playing with, or they are invading his territory. How do we stop this hitting(
    It’s so frustrating because emit happens often and everyday.
    Thanks

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