Goals of misbehavior – Part 1: Attention

Why do children misbehave? To communicate? To control? To manipulate? This four-part series will describe the goals of misbehavior, what they mean and how you can effectively respond to them.

Clipart of a young girl crying

Why do children misbehave? Is it because they are being disobedient on purpose? Do they not know better? Are they not capable of following rules? Is it just to push your buttons? Are they pushing boundaries? Testing limits? Is it just fun?

Sometimes when children misbehave it feels personal, like your child is purposely doing something to you in order to make your life more difficult. In the hustle and bustle of family life, these acts of misconduct might feel like someone is adding fuel to the fire. Many parents do not understand what motivates their children to act this way, especially after they put so much effort into raising hardworking and respectful children. So, why then, do children misbehave?

Think about misbehavior as a method of communication, a child’s way of reaching out. Adults have a lot of practice in decoding their own feelings and have learned many different ways of managing and expressing those feelings. Young children are still learning these tools for communication so, instead of saying they are lonely or bored, toys are thrown. The behavior is negative or undesired, but the reasons behind it are not. It’s important to remember negative behavior does not make your child “bad.” There’s a difference between how your child behaves and their character. What they do is not who they are.

Understanding why children misbehave can be a crucial step in positive discipline. Knowing the why will help you figure out the how—how to respond. Just like it is important to recognize an infant’s specific cues indicating hunger, tiredness or overstimulation, it is important for parents and caregivers to recognize older children’s cues. These cues, often shown through actions instead of words, will tell you how to meet their immediate needs and help teach them positive and effective ways of expressing themselves. Children use behavior to communicate something to you and understanding their reasons behind their behavior can help you not only care for and nurture your child, but help teach them to regulate their own behavior.

One reason children misbehave is attention. When children seek attention through their behaviors they are feeling overlooked or insignificant. To get this need met, they behave in ways to make sure they get noticed. They throw their toys, hit their brother, scream or generally make life difficult.

Managing attention-seeking behaviors

Oftentimes when children seek attention through their misbehavior we give them exactly what they want, but maybe not in the most constructive way. It’s easy to quickly react to these situations by yelling or scolding a child. In doing that, we give them the attention they desire, but we give them negative attention. While children would prefer positive attention over negative attention, they will accept and seek out negative attention if that is all that is offered to them. If the only time an adult pays attention to their child is by yelling or scolding in reaction to negative behaviors, the child is likely to repeat or escalate their actions to continue getting that attention. If we find a way to give the child our attention in a positive, constructive way, everyone can get what they want.

Try these tips from the Michigan State University Extension to manage attention-seeking misbehavior:

  • Make it positive. Instead of noticing your child’s negative behavior, try pointing out something positive. Maybe in the midst of a conflict you can mention how pleased you are that your child picked up all their blocks and tidied the playroom. Shift your child’s focus and you can shift their behavior. In this case a child gets the attention they want, but for a positive behavior that you can reinforce.
  • Change the channel. Sometimes it is hard for children to shift their focus once they have set a goal, like attention! Think of it like being in a tunnel – when your focus is ahead on your goal of getting out the other side, you might miss other opportunities to accomplish the same goal along the way. Try giving attention to your child for something completely unrelated. You could notice their socks are on inside out, point out a squirrel outside or ask them to remind you of the color of their eyes. If you shift their focus away from their negative behavior, then your child is getting the attention they desire in a positive way.
  • Decode the message. When a child is misbehaving, they are trying to communicate something to you. Try taking a step back and taking a minute to see the situation from your child’s point of view. It is easier to address issues in a calm and supportive manner when we understand where someone is coming from. Do a little sleuthing and look for clues that might tell you what your child is feeling. Ask yourself what their motivation could be. Are they tired, hungry, lonely, bored? There may be simple things you can do to discourage misbehavior and make sure your child’s needs are met. Maybe your child needs some space, a new activity, a change of scenery or some quality time with you.
  • Spend quality time. If your child is misbehaving to get attention from you, one of the best things you can do is plan time to give them your undivided attention in positive ways. Load them up with quality time and make sure that you give them lots of attention. Make dinner together, plan a family outing, or snuggle under the blankets reading stories with a flashlight. Whatever you do, do it together!

If you reframe your view of misbehavior as an opportunity to listen to, care for and teach your child, you will be able to model and reinforce positive behaviors patterns, strengthen your communication with your child and increase the quality of your interactions.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our impact report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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