What causes children to misbehave?

Learn basic triggers that cause children to misbehave.

June 19, 2018 - Author: Tracie Abram, Michigan State University Extension

Little boy pouting

Summertime is depicted as a laid-back joyful season, when in fact for many, it is the opposite. Summertime for families of small children means added expenses of childcare or having to pay for additional meals that normally were less expensive due to school meal plans.  Summertime generally means an interruption in routine. Children may be up later and therefore not getting enough sleep and possibly skipping meals or not eating as well due to busier schedules.  Having a basic understanding of what triggers children to misbehave will help keep homes happy and safe. 

One basic understanding is that children (and adults too) will misbehave when they are hungry, angry, lonely/bored or tired (HALT).  People will not have as much tolerance and be more irritable when they are hungry, angry or not feeling well.  If you or your children are experiencing any of these emotions or feelings halt what you are doing and tend to that need before moving on. 

Another reason why children misbehave is that they may not fully understand the request.  For an example, if you ask the child to calm down they may not understand that you mean and how to actually calm themselves.   This is also an example of a lack of experience.  Children do not have the experiences that adults have.  It takes time for a child to fully develop problem solving and communication skills. 

The practice of mindfulness can teach children and adults how to calm their minds and bodies to find a feeling of balance or confidence.   Mindfulness is a practice of paying attention to your senses in the current moment without judgement.  It is about being present and acknowledging the moment to moment experiences.  Mindfulness helps develop focus and self regulation.  When practiced regularly, the events that require acute attention will be less stressful because your body and mind have been conditioned to work together in paying attention.   

Another reason children may misbehave is because their behaviors are accidently rewarded by adults. An example is when children wait to do something an adult asks of them until the adults tone of voice increases or that crying and whining gets a parents attention.  Children also copy what they see others doing. 

Sometimes children do things they know are wrong such as testing the rules, and showing independence.  Nobody likes to be told what to do all the time and not have any choices.  Children are learning how to do many things at a fast rate and they need to be able to show off what they have learned or can do.  

When you or your chidren are showing one or more of these seven triggers,  be mindful and acknowledge what you notice in a tone that will teach, guide and train your children. 

  • Hunger, anger, lonely/bored, tired or sickness
  • Don’t understand the rules
  • Lack of experience
  • Misbehavior was accidently rewarded
  • Testing the rules
  • Copying others
  • Showing independence

If you are struggling with understanding your children’s behavior, Michigan State University Extension has programming that can help.  Nurturing Families, RELAX: Alternatives to Anger, and Stress Less with Mindfulness are programming series that have been successful in helping many parent-child and family relationships.  Peruse their website for programming near you.

Tags: early childhood development, family, healthy relationships, managing relationships, msu extension, social and emotional development


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