When I am with parents of child and adolescent clients, I often find myself bristling at the language parents use to describe misbehavior. A particular pet peeve of mine is the word manipulative. It’s not that I disagree that children’s behavior is, at times, manipulative. My problem with this word is two-fold. First, I believe it implies a level of awareness and planfulness that far exceeds the depth of thinking that goes into most misbehavior. Second, it is a term often used to describe adults with personality disorders. Personality disorders are various constellations of behaviors that develop because something has gone awry in the development of core personality features such as empathy, self-control, interpersonal relatedness, and identity. Mercifully, most child misbehavior does NOT develop into an adult personality disorder.
There are many reasons why kids misbehave. Adults who have to deal with child misbehavior will be much more effective if they spend some time considering the function the misbehavior is serving before they intervene. (I much prefer the term functional to manipulative.) Below is a list of the most common functions of misbehavior. It could probably be much longer, but we are all busy parents, so I tried to keep it concise.
- Entertainment. Sometimes naughty behavior is just plain fun. Have you ever written all over the bathroom mirror, walls, and floor with shaving cream and toothpaste? One of my 8-year-old clients has, and you know what he said about it? “Now THAT was fun!” For some reason, Mom was not amused.
- Attention. Think about how much attention a child sitting quietly on the sofa reading a book gets from her parents. Maybe a comment such as “I love to see you reading,” or a question such as “Are you enjoying your book?” Probably not even that much attention, though. Now think about how much attention she will get if she uses the book to wallop her brother. (This particular behavior also has entertainment value, unfortunately.)
- Reinforcement. In a perfect world, parents never reward negative behavior. In the world we actually live in, often parents do. They do it when they are tired or rushed or beaten down. What harm can it possibly do to reward a tantrum with a cookie or a meltdown with a little extra Xbox time every once in a while? A lot! Giving in to a negative behavior is a surefire way to make certain that the behavior is repeated.
- Anger. In a perfect world, children use their words to express negative feelings such as anger, frustration, and disappointment. In the real world, they sometimes slam bedroom doors, they sometimes rip up teacher notes they don’t want their parents to see, and they sometimes curse at their younger siblings. In the moment, acting out may even help a child feel better as evidenced by this comment from a teenaged client who cursed at her mother: “Before the words came out of my mouth, I knew my dad would punish me but it just felt too good to let my anger out.”
- Cluelessness. A lot of misbehavior occurs because kids don’t really know what they are supposed to do or how to do it. I remember a little boy telling me a story about being punished because he didn’t make his bed five days in a row. When I asked him why he didn’t make his bed if he knew he was supposed to, he replied “I tried, but I don’t know how.” I’ve heard similar stories about using racial slurs and other inappropriate name-calling (“I really didn’t know it was a bad word!”).
- Peer Pressure. As children get older, they become less motivated to please their parents and more focused on impressing their friends. Sometimes, the pressure to fit in leads young people to engage in negative behaviors they otherwise would not. The pressure may come from peers in an overt way (“Come on, everybody is doing it.”) or it may derive from a child’s own sense of what he must do to belong. In a recent session, I asked a 14-year-old if she thought about the possible consequences of drinking wine coolers at an 8th grade graduation party hosted by a neighbor. Her reply: “Oh, I knew what would happen if I got caught. My friends making fun of me would have been worse.”
- Anxiety. A lot of misbehavior is driven by anxiety. The classic example is the child who refuses to get out of bed because of worry about something that might happen at school such as being bullied or scoring poorly on a test. It is not always obvious that anxiety is a driving force, however, so this one may require excellent parental sleuthing skills. I recently met a little boy who was brought to see me because of “defiant behavior” at home. His parents did not mention anything about anxiety during the intake call. When I met him, I squatted down to his level and extended my hand for a handshake. He backed away and shook his head. His mother scolded him for being rude, and he reached out tentatively and shook my hand. As soon as I let go of his hand, he began wiping it repeatedly on his shorts. A half hour into the evaluation, it was pretty clear that this little boy has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and that his reluctance to shake my hand was neither rude nor defiant; it was driven by his fear of germs.
- Modeling. Sometimes kids misbehave because they have seen adults model similar inappropriate behaviors. Earlier this week, I had a session with a boy who was brought to see me after repeated suspensions from school for mouthing off at teachers. When I walked past the reception area to meet my next client in the waiting room, I heard someone mouthing off at a member of my staff. I walked over to see what the problem was and found the boy’s father speaking very disrespectfully to the receptionist because he was unhappy with one of the office policies and wanted her to bend the rules. When I told him it was not necessary to be rude, he scowled at me, said “let’s go” to his son, and stormed out. I have no doubt that this father has talked to his son many times about treating adults with respect, but “do as I say, not as I do” is a very ineffective parenting technique.
- Attention. Perhaps I have mentioned this one before, but it merits mentioning again. As I write this post, I am sitting in a coffee shop where a group of mothers and their preschoolers have gathered. As I chose this table, I thought to myself that I could probably get some good material by watching the four little girls and their moms. Sure enough, after a pretty long period of excellent behavior while the moms talked among themselves, one of the little girls started peeling open little creamers and emptying them onto the table. When Mom didn’t notice, she began kicking the leg of her mother’s chair. When Mom still continued her conversation, the little girl put both her hands into the cream on the table and started playing with her mother’s ponytail. Needless to say, her behavior functioned very well to get Mom’s attention!
Thinking about the functions a negative behavior serves will often point to an intervention strategy. Here is a way over-simplified list of functions and interventions (in parentheses, you will find links to posts in which I address the particular topic in greater detail):
- Entertainment → → → Help child find something fun and constructive do.
- Attention → → → Increase attention for positive behavior and decrease attention for negative behavior. Use negative consequences when necessary. (Preschoolers Playing the Odds; In the Rare Event that a Preschooler Does Not Listen, Using Consequences Effectively, Part 1 and Part 2)
- Reinforcement → → → Stop reinforcing the behavior. Ignore it or use negative consequences. (The Awesome Power of Intermittent Reinforcement)
- Anger → → → Speculate out loud about the feelings driving the behavior and create a safe space for talking about them. Then listen, listen, listen. (Inside My Head)
- Cluelessness → → → Teach child what to do and how to do it.
- Peer Pressure → → → Listen, listen, listen! Then, make sure the child has good refusal skills. (Kids Want Limits. Really, They Do; Teaching Kids to Say No)
- Anxiety → → → Help child develop strategies for coping with fears and worries. (3 A’s and an I: Parenting Anxious Children)
- Modeling → → → Picture your own negative behaviors through your child’s eyes. Then, clean up your act. (Not the Fat One; Don’t Go Back to Middle School; Bike Helmets and Values)
All kids misbehave. Some kids do it a lot, some only a little. Some kids misbehave in big ways; others are just mischievous. Every instance of misbehavior is an opportunity for learning. How parents respond to misbehavior determines what kids learn, and how parents respond should be determined, in part, by the function(s) served by the particular misbehavior. Hopefully, the lists above will help you answer the “why?” question as well as the “what now?”
[Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]