Why Do Kids Misbehave?

Smiling tween girl wearing a black bandit mask and enjoying a large bowl of macaroni & cheese. She has given her broccoli to a little dog in the background.
Thinkstock/Veer/iStock/FOTF-Cary Bates

The story goes that Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber and prison escape artist, was once asked by a reporter why he robbed banks. According to the legend, Sutton replied, "Because that's where the money is."

The story makes us smile because it reminds us of the human tendency to ask, "Why?" about others' behaviors when the reason can be explained in fairly simple terms. Why rob banks? Because that's where the money is.

A similar principle is often true in our parenting. Parents ask questions that presume that there is a complicated answer for troubling behavior they see in their children:

"Why won't my 6-year-old daughter go to bed at night?"

"Why is my teen son so far behind in his schoolwork?"

"Why doesn't my daughter ever stop arguing?"

In most situations, the reason a child engages in — and continues to engage in — any of these behaviors is not all that complex. There is a payoff for the child, some reward for the negative behavior. In other words, the behavior works.

Why does 2-year-old Joshua whine so much? The answer is because whining works in Joshua's family. When a 5-year-old picky eater says she hates pork chops and broccoli and gets macaroni and cheese instead, she learns that complaining about food works for her. A 10-year-old ignores his parents when they tell him to stop playing video games because he knows that he can keep playing for another 30 minutes before things get serious. Ignoring his parents works for him.

It's true for older kids, too. Over time, teens learn that if they wear headphones in the car, Mom won't ask if they've finished a science project. They learn that if they stay up late on Friday and sleep in late on Saturday, they can avoid cleaning the garage. Or that if they make a big mess fixing a sandwich, Mom might make the next sandwich for them.

It can be a difficult concept for parents to swallow, but children misbehave because, in their home, it simply works. So it makes sense that one of the most important strategies in wise, effective parenting is to make sure that our kids' poor choices stop paying off, either by removing that payoff directly or by creating consequences that make the reward too expensive to be worthwhile.

Removing the payoff

Sometimes you can easily spot what a child gains from a certain behavior. Your toddler asks for orange juice or another snack by whining. The whining is exhausting, so you pour her a glass of juice or get her some more crackers. The toddler has, once again, been reinforced to whine.

Every time a behavior is rewarded, it deepens the child's ongoing perception that this behavior works. Even an occasional negative consequence won't change the behavior because whining is still mostly being positively reinforced. Undoing a learned, reinforced behavior takes persistence. To do this, you must completely remove whining as an effective tactic. The difficult process of kids successfully relearning these kinds of demands is best achieved through consistency.

Other times, the payoff may not be obvious to our adult way of thinking. For example, eye contact is a huge reward for preschoolers. So is physical comfort and convincing a parent to stop giving another child attention. Consider a mother who is shopping with her two children. Justin, the 5-year-old, may think that Lisa, the 3-year-old, is getting too much attention. Justin realizes that this attention may stop if he lags behind or wanders away. He's right. Justin wanders off, and the attention stops going to Lisa.

This mother's challenge is to keep Justin with her without rewarding him with extra comfort and attention when he wanders off. She might simply take his hand and place it on the cart each time he starts to lag behind. She could also establish a system where the child doesn't get dessert at dinner that evening if he doesn't behave while shopping. Whatever small payoff the child receives from misbehaving may still remain, but the child eventually learns that, overall, it is too expensive to be worth the reward.

The bedtime blues

In many homes, bedtime is a good place for parents to start the process of removing rewards for a child's misbehavior. Kids are geniuses at figuring out how to extend bedtime another half-hour or so, and parents are often no match for a creative kid who has nothing better to do than to try to get some extra needs and wants met. Some of those payoffs are obvious — a drink of water, another snack, another hug. But remember that attention and eye contact are also rewards in a child's economy. Kids can be motivated simply by engagement.

A strategy called "the invisible game" works well with some kids to eliminate excessive bedtime stalling. This involves the house functioning exactly as though the child had gone to bed. Go through the normal pre-bedtime rituals of eating a snack, brushing teeth, reading a book, tucking in, saying prayers, and so on. You can also thwart some foreseeable stall tactics by having them go to the bathroom or get a drink of water before bedtime. Remember to remove toys, gadgets and other distractions. But after you've said "good night," leave the room for the evening.

From this moment on, your child is invisible. If the child calls out, ignore her. If the child comes out of her bedroom, don't look at her. You can go through some email, read a magazine or book, straighten up the kitchen — all without looking at the child or responding to any question or activity by the child. It is important that all this is done with no emotion, approval or disapproval. If you say anything, it should be straightforward and said without eye contact: "I can't talk to you now. You're not supposed to be up."

This simple, silent plan often solves the problem of bedtime. If it doesn't work the first time, don't worry. Just regroup with the added wisdom — and try again the following night.

Mired in the motives

Many parents fall into the trap of focusing too much on the child's motives. In our efforts to understand the child's reward for poor choices, we sometimes obscure the misbehavior itself. For example, innocently asking the child, "Why are you doing this?" can shift a conversation away from the important fact that a child has misbehaved. And, surprisingly, it can end up with the parent inadvertently making excuses for the child that will delay the child's growth.

Imagine you have a teen daughter who just got a speeding ticket. You ask her why she was speeding, and she says she was speeding because you forgot to wake her or that she was late because you were asking about her plans after school. Whatever her responses, they will most likely be the ones that work to get her out of as much trouble as possible. It might be a tearful, "I am so sorry." She may not even know why she was speeding — sometimes there simply isn't a logical explanation — so our very question may prompt her to make up an answer. All we need to understand is that driving fast is a behavior that has worked in some way for this daughter, and that all the extra dialogue just clouds the lesson. It's a bit like looking at a bucket of mud after we have stirred it — when just moments ago it was clear water.

At this point, you might be thinking, How can I remove the payoff for poor behavior if I don't seek to understand what that payoff is? Depending on the infraction, it's not always necessary to figure out those details. We just need to make the unacceptable behavior more costly than whatever the payoff is. For the son who has a habit of kicking the dining room chairs, losing his video game system or favorite toy for a couple days could quickly extinguish the chair kicking. It simply has to be a little too costly for the child to engage in the negative behavior.

Asking your son, your spouse, your friends from church or a psychologist why your son likes to kick the chair would most likely start you down a complicated road that may take you so far from the issue that you never find your way back. All you really need to understand is the simple fact that the behavior is working in some way. Your son kicks the chair because it gets him the effect he is looking for, maybe hurting his parents' feelings or getting him out of a boring dinner conversation. These could all be rewards in a child's economy. But those details ultimately don't matter. Our focus must be on simply ensuring that kicking chairs doesn't work anymore.

Decide what rules you will follow in your home and how your home will efficiently respond when those rules are ignored. You can often resist the temptation to wonder where the misbehavior is coming from and just calmly make it costly for him to do that. The problem behavior probably didn't start overnight, and it doesn't need to end overnight. The consequence just needs to be costly enough to extinguish the unacceptable behavior.

Preparation for the real world

As adults, we live in the same world we are preparing our children for. And we recognize certain costs of reality that our kids are just beginning to understand. For example, after bouncing a check or two, or getting late fees on a credit card, we simply learn that the costs of some behaviors are too high to be worth it. Interestingly, our motives — the why we did something — are usually not part of these exchanges. Most likely, none of us have ever received a parking ticket that asked why we were parked there so long. Nor have we received an email from our local library asking if we had a rough week and a good reason for not returning the video. As a result of why being out of the picture, a beautiful environment exists for growth. We commit an infraction, and we receive a reasonable consequence, and there's no unnecessary drama.

Hopefully, this is all good news. If your child is exhibiting problem behaviors, the hardest step might be acknowledging that, most likely, this behavior has somehow been rewarded and reinforced. No committed parent deliberately tries to create a home atmosphere that rewards whining or arguing or kicking. But the next step is worth getting to: Many problem behaviors can be eliminated without prolonged analysis or digging into motives. We just need to hit "reboot" and make sure that negative, disruptive behavior is not only no longer rewarded, but also receives a consistent, commensurate cost.

This isn't easy. But it's likely easier in the long run. Understanding a child's economy of rewards — and responding calmly to him or her with consistent responses — can actually extinguish the larger problem behaviors that have stressed or strained the relationship between the child and parents.

Michael Anderson is a licensed psychologist who has spent 30 years studying the ways kids grow up. Timothy Johanson is a pediatrician with a deep commitment to helping parents find better ways to support their children's development.
This article first appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2016 by Michael W. Anderson and Timothy D. Johanson. Used by permission.

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