Children Misbehaving? Maybe There Is More Meaning To The Madness Than You Might Imagine!

When parents understand the causes behind children's behaviour problems, the overall happiness quotient increases. Read on to find out how.

When parents understand the causes behind children’s behaviour problems, the overall happiness quotient increases. Read on to find out how.

Ever wish there was a parenting manual attached to your child? Do traditional and new age parenting tactics fail just the same?

Little Karun was in the middle of a tantrum in the playground. He wanted the swing and the little girl who had just got on was being annoying – she rightly wanted her turn! The little girl’s mother gave Karun a hateful look as her child complained to her.

Ashika’s mother is tired of her fussiness – she can’t find any t-shirts without labels on the neck. “But it is inside, Beta”, she tries to tell the inconsolable girl, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t show!” She turns to her wide-eyed (and pregnant) friend, “Now, if I cut it off, she keeps pulling at the t-shirt. Which child needs the insides of a t-shirt examined before buying, tell me?!”

“Shiva, come on! You have to finish cleaning up your room. Your friends are coming. Can you keep it decent at least today?” begs a frustrated Kavya. She is tired of her kids’ rooms being messy all the time.

Any of these incidents sound familiar? Parenting in India has been a lot about how to become a parent – all of society wants to know when someone is going to have a baby, how long it has been, is the mother eating saffron, is the baby a boy and so on. Once the baby is born, a lot is made of feeding, bathing, sleeping and playing. When the child at 6 months throws a toy, we cheer that she’s held it and is trying to do something with it. When the same child at 3 years throws a toy at them, the same parents are nonplussed.

Unfortunately, a behaviour manual does not get delivered right along with the placenta. We get this bundle of joy that is also the source of frustration and confusion as they grow up.

My approach to all this was the same as everyone else. I unconsciously turned into my mother – alternately firm, there was yelling, rules, routines and affection. A career change to special education when my kids were in primary school had me thrilled. Why was all this information in a special education book somewhere, not shared with the parent-practitioner world at large?

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I began practicing the theory at home, almost sure that it wouldn’t work off the printed page. It worked like magic once I got better at identifying the cause of the behaviour.

Psychologists have long known that only dead people have no behaviour. All our actions are called behaviour. So when we tell our children to ‘behave!’, we are just telling them to do something. What we mean of course is ‘behave appropriately.’

So what causes inappropriate behaviour?

It helps to observe ourselves and those around us. When do we get angry? If it is a situation we can deal with and resolve, there’s no cause for anger. When life throws us something that we can’t cope with easily, behaviour that is out of the ordinary shows up. Children are the same.

Dr. Ross Greene, in his path breaking work on behaviour, says ‘Children do well if they can.’ The corollary to this is that when they don’t, it is because they just can’t do better.

Do watch the video here.

Once we look at behaviour as a signal that our child is not able to do something, it is easy to teach them that skill. Unfortunately, we are deeply socialized to pass judgment, using words like ‘lazy’, ‘does not try’, ‘unmotivated’, ‘manipulative’, etc.

If I were to tell you that you couldn’t get something you really wanted, you would investigate and find ways to still get whatever it is you want. Does that make you manipulative? In business circles, you might even be lauded for being assertive, resourceful and become a go-to person for this skill.

If we agree that children will do well when they can, it is easier to help them when they can’t. This was my huge AHA! moment from studying psychology. They have actually identified the causes behind children’s behaviour problems!

What functions does bad behaviour serve and what are some solutions?

All bad behaviour is to either garner attention, escape/avoid undesirable stuff, sensory in nature or for tangible items/experiences.

  • Little Karun wanted the swing.
  • The little girl wanted her mother’s attention.
  • Ashika has sensory difficulties with the label.
  • Shiva will do a lot to avoid cleaning his room.

What does this information do for me as a parent? First, it helps me look at the situation with some balance. It removes judgment and the whole emotional charge that comes from blaming, guilt, et al. AND it gives me tools to get to the root of the issue and address the skills gap, to set up a system that helps the child get over his difficulties coping with the situation.

The trick is in correctly identifying which of the 4 causes we are dealing with.


Suppose a child is doing something for your attention, they will take any attention – positive or otherwise. If attention is the cause, the solution is giving enough positive attention. The more positive attention a child gets, the more positive behaviour you get to see.

This means that you need to concertedly ignore misbehaviour (when there’s no destruction in the picture and safety is assured), catch the child being good often and give them that hug, smile, nod or verbal acknowledgement that you saw what they did and like it.


On the other hand, if avoidance is the cause, ignoring will accentuate the misbehaviour.

Say a child doesn’t like to write and throws a tantrum every time it is time to write. A teacher in a class is likely to remove the child to minimize the disruption to the class. The child sought to avoid the task, the removal from class played into that need. In those schools where children are still sent out of the class, the happy child in the corridor is getting what she wanted…escape.

The solution here is to make sure that the task is completed – with encouragement, maybe broken down into smaller steps, with creative and fun ways that reduce the frustration. For example, a child who throws a tantrum to avoid cleaning up needs to finish the task, maybe with help, dancing/listening to music while they tidy up. Once they understand that they can’t get away with it, they can be helped to quickly complete it…escape after doing the task versus from the task itself! Notice that the length of a tantrum or the whining to avoid something increases every time you give in – the next time, they make sure to try for longer to see if you will give in.

By the way, this is not manipulative, this is how we are ALL made. All this happens without conscious thought!

Satisfying sensory needs

The sensory cause of behaviour means that the senses are overwhelmed.  For example, places that are too loud, too crowded could make children feel uncomfortable. People get headaches in perfume stores, several children can’t deal with scratchy material, others can’t handle certain textures, etc. Since we are not clued into why we are cranky, our behaviour reflects the discomfort.

Adults may be better equipped to handle these situations relative to children, even if no one is immune to sensory difficulties.  Finding an acceptable replacement is the answer to this function of behaviour – a child who bounces off the furniture could be given an exercise ball to sit on, a child who mouths everything could be given a specific item to mouth, etc.

Wanting tangible items or activities

A child who cries for tangible things or experiences – the toy, a gadget, the swing, a movie maybe, is the simplest to handle. Parents can teach the child to ask appropriately, refusing to address the request until a child asks without crying. Once that happens, the child either gets the item if it is appropriate, gets redirected to something else, is given a way to earn it or is given a reason for refusal.

It takes some time to identify these causes in a specific situation. Sometimes, it could be a combination of causes and will need to be addressed accordingly. It helps to observe the behaviour objectively and analyze it – does it happen at a certain time? At specific places? What happened before the behaviour and how did the situation get resolved? Does it happen in more than one environment? Is there a pattern we can find?

The point of this article is not to make your child’s behaviour ‘perfect’ but to get her parents understand why she might be doing what she does. It can help us be better at parenting, building both skills and a good relationship with our kids. Who does not want that?!

Image source: annoyed woman with children fighting by Shutterstock.


About the Author


Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, blogger and mother of three. Her interests include living a mindful and organic life as much as possible in addition to reading and writing about the reading. read more...

26 Posts | 131,214 Views

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