Home Contact Press Release

Why Kids Misbehave

In order to understand how to turn misbehavior around, it’s helpful to first understand why children misbehave in the first place.

What I’m going to tell you is researched based and was originally developed 100 years ago by a psychologist named Alfred Adler. The following model is a simple way to see why children misbehave and how to turn their misbehavior into cooperation.

behavior model 1

This is what I call the “Behavior Model”. It shows, at a glance, why children misbehave and how to turn that misbehavior into cooperation. The top level of this triangle is the behavior that we see. It can be good behavior or bad behavior.

The bottom level shows two needs that every child has. If we want to change behavior, we must understand these needs and how they influence behavior. So let's take a close look at them.

Two Built-in Needs of Every Child

Every child has two needs that have a direct influence on their behavior. The first is the need for a sense of belonging and the second, the need for a sense of personal power. These two needs are hard-wired into every child’s brain although they are not consciously aware of it. Every child must meet these needs. It’s not like it would be nice to meet these needs, or even it’s important to meet these needs, it’s more like failure to meet these needs is not an option. This is one thing you can always count on. Knowing this can be very helpful. Let's take a close look at these two needs and see how each one effects behavior. Then we will examine how we can use this knowledge to change kids' behavior from negative to positive.


Every child needs to feel a sense of belonging. To a child, belonging means to feel noticed, needed, accepted, loved, and included as a valued member of the family, . A child craves for his parent’s attention and approval. When a child does not feel a sense of belonging he feels ignored, left out, forgotten, rejected. And a child cannot bear to feel that way. So he goes in search of ways to achieve a sense of belonging on his own. He discovers that hitting, teasing, throwing tantrums, whining and getting into mischief is a good way to get parents' attention. The child doesn't care how he gets attention, only that he gets it. And if the only way to feel a sense of belonging is to misbehave, then misbehave he will.

Personal Power

Feeling a sense of personal power is the second need that motivates a child’s behavior. Where a sense of belonging means to feel included, a sense of personal power means to feel significant, in charge of oneself, having the freedom to choose, to feel empowered. It’s how kids start to become independent, and after all, ultimately, isn’t that what we want them to become: independent, able to think for themselves, take care of themselves, make decisions and be accountable for their actions? That starts with a need for a sense of personal power. It's wired into every child.

If a child does not feel a sense of personal power, she will go after it on her own, and discover that the easiest way to feel personal power is to simply say “no” to a request or “command” from a parent. "You can't make me." she'll say. Choosing to obey is the one thing she has complete control over no matter what her age. She will discover that arguing, ignoring, and being defiant builds her sense of personal power. She will get a power fix from making mom and dad angry, or bullying her siblings.

The bottom line is this: if children's needs for a sense of belonging and personal power are not being met, they will try to meet those needs on their own. And when children try to meet those needs on their own, it results in misbehavior.

So What Can We Do?

Now that we know those two basic needs of every child, we can do things, as parents, to meet those needs in positive ways. Children don’t care HOW those needs are met, only that they ARE met. Granted, they will still explore, experiment, create, make mistakes, get into trouble, and have as much fun as they can. That’s how kids learn and grow. But once those basic needs are met, there’s really no reason for children to try to meet those needs on their own by repeatedly misbehaving.

Children misbehave when they are left on their own to figure out how to meet their two built-in needs. Children behave “good” when their parents, caregivers, babysitters and teachers help them meet their needs in positive ways.

We’ve learned that misbehavior is not random. Your child is on a mission to feel a sense of belonging and personal power. All the arguing, interrupting, whining, talking back, ignoring and other misbehaviors are symptoms of a deeper issue. If we focus only on the bad behavior by yelling, spanking, reminding, nagging and punishing, the bad behavior might go away for a while, but will return. Why? Because the child MUST meet his three needs, and if misbehaving is the only way he knows how to meet these needs, more misbehave is guaranteed. Most negative behaviors are a symptom of a deeper issue - a need unmet.

If we focus on the deeper issue, helping our children meet their needs in positive ways, the bad behavior will change to good behavior naturally and automatically.

Well then, how do we focus on the deeper issue? How do we help our children meet their needs in positive ways? That's what the middle level of our triangle is all about. And it can be summed up in one word: Relationship.

behavior model 2

Behavior, good or bad, is determined by the strength of the relationship the child has with parents. If parents ignore the child's needs (and they would if they didn't know about those needs), the child will misbehave for the reasons stated above. But if parents help the child meet those needs in positive ways by strengthening their relationship, behavior improves. This is so important I'm going to say it again.

If parents do things that will strengthen the relationship they have with their children, their children's negative behavior will decrease and positive behavior will increase..

There are two ways a child can meet her needs: 1) Left on her own through trial and error, or 2) with the help of someone (preferably parents). If left on her own she will discover ways, or behaviors, that meet those needs. Behaviors like: whining, tantrums, arguing, fighting with siblings, teasing, interrupting, being defiant, back-talking, and being uncooperative. But if those needs are met in positive ways with the help of a knowledgeable parent, the child will not feel compelled to meet those needs with negative misbehaviors.

This is the end of Why Kids Misbehave. Your task now, is to learn the skills that will enable you to strengthen the relationships between you and your children. Those skills are explained in my book, or in the workshops I conduct. It is my hope that you will learn these skills, experiment with them, and see if they don't make a big difference in your life and in the lives of your children.



Most negative behaviors are a symptom of a deeper issue - a need unmet.