What is Misbehavior?

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm (Positive Discipline)

“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 needs.

Last week, I saw a lady who set her 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 children have that they will work at meeting are:

  • 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 (age 6) 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? Nah, purposeful destruction that meets JJ's need for tactile stimulation.

And I know that sometimes JJ (age 4) 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 does matter to 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 a Positive 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.


  1. Melanie said,

    Hi Kelly, just wanted to say thanks for another great post. There have been a few lately where I’ve felt like you must have a crystal ball that sees directly into our household!! I love that these posts help me refocus on how I’m interacting with my daughter, and there have definitely been some ‘aha’ moments. Thanks again. Melanie

    • Kelly said,

      Thanks, Melanie! I think so many of us go through really similar situations with our kids…it’s nice to know we’re not alone in this!

  2. kimberly gonsalves said,

    Nice post, especially the reminder that responding to “misbehavior” doesn’t always require “discipline”. Bringing discernment to bear on the situation doesn’t mean we become incapable of redirection and correction of behavior when needed. It just means that we look deeper than the action itself. I like to remind myself to focus on what my child needs from me (or the situation), rather than focusing on how my child’s behavior might make me “look” to others.

  3. kimberly said,

    Nice reminder that all “misbehavior” doesn’t require “discipline”, and that being able to discern whether there is an underlying need that isn’t being met doesn’t preclude us from moving to redirect or correct at other times, if the needs of the child and situation so require.

  4. kimberly said,

    It’s not the same as saying, “my child has an unmet need for connection, therefore I’ll allow this obnoxious behavior”. Instead, this awareness helps us move in to meet their needs in respectful ways and in doing so, teach the child a better, more constructive way to get that need met.

  5. Kelly said,

    I agree, Kimberly! One thing I love about Positive Discipline is that it gets at the root of a situation, and it’s not just about responding to “surface” behaviors. It’s about setting limits on behavior while still understanding what our kids fundamentally need….which is what makes this approach effective in the long-run.

  6. lia dominique andress said,

    i relate so much to this as an adult. i see how we adults too need these same aspects. and likewise “misbehave” when we do not get them.


    • Kelly said,

      Yes, and it’s not always obvious, even to ourselves, what we need! We just feel “off” somehow. This is also a reason I love “Nonviolent Communication,” by Marshall Rosenberg…’misbehavior,’ miscommunication…it all comes down to a need. If we know what we need, we can communicate (with both words & behavior) more effectively.

  7. Emily said,

    I need to read that book. Thanks for the post!

  8. Janet said,

    Great post!

    I love that you used the example of the one year old “checking out” the bottom of the coffee cup. Eric does that ALL THE TIME. We all joke about him needing to look at the bottoms of EVERY plate, cup etc. on the table. The teachers at his daycare say many of the kids his age do the same thing. They all start out with plates and utensils at each meal, but don’t always finish with them!

  9. Pearl said,

    Thanks for this, I’ll be sharing it.

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