5 Reasons Why Children Misbehave

Many times, children misbehave to get attention or because it's the way they find to express that they need help. Learn more.
5 Reasons Why Children Misbehave
Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 09 April, 2023

As a parent, who hasn’t had to deal with a situation where their children misbehave? For example, a fight between siblings over a toy or a tantrum on the floor. You probably know exactly how you feel in those situations, generally, a mix between irritation, frustration, and perhaps even embarrassment. But we don’t always know what motivates our children to misbehave or how to act about it. In the following article, we’ll go deeper into this subject.

What is misbehaving?

Before understanding the reasons why children misbehave or have tantrums, we must clarify what misbehaving implies. This shouldn’t be equated with a behavioral problem or disorder. Disobeying some rules or performing certain pranks is part of the development and growth of children.

Of course, as adults, our role is to guide and decide how far and when. As stated by psychologist Alvaro Bilbao, there are limits that can be broken, as children are made to experiment and discover what can and can’t be done, and the consequences of their actions. However, there are others that must be respected, and about which adults must be firm and consistent. These are linked to values and to avoiding situations that put children in danger.

You may be interested in: What to Do if Your Child Hits at School

A mother holding up her hands as her child's is about the hit her with a stuffed animal.
At certain ages, it’s important for children to misbehave. In fact, that’s how they learn about boundaries, respect, and rules.

Why children misbehave

Here are some of the reasons why kids misbehave.

1. Defiance of authority

During childhood, children gain autonomy and freedom. They begin to develop their skills, learn about themselves, and test themselves. One of the ways they do this has to do with showing adults who they are, how they think, and that they “can do things on their own”.

2. Reflecting the reality they live in

Children are like sponges that absorb everything they see and experience. Therefore, if in our own homes, the resources we use to solve conflicts aren’t adequate, they’ll follow the same examples.

3. Changes in routine

Some situations, such as a move, a change of school, or the arrival of a new sibling to the family, among others, can be overwhelming and challenging. This causes the child anguish, discomfort, and bewilderment, so “misbehaving” is a way of letting off steam.

4. Impulse control difficulties

Although it’s to be expected that at a certain age, children can’t control their impulses, sometimes the impossibility of restraining themselves can be more problematic. These are recurrent cases in which children bite their peers, hit them, or hit themselves. Depending on the severity of the matter, these cases merit the intervention of a professional to rule out any other type of diagnosis.

5. Frustration

Frustration is one of the predominant motives, but many other emotions can also be included here. Many times, children misbehave when they want something they can’t get.

Of course, there are multiple reasons not mentioned that explain why children act the way they do. In any case, it’s always advisable not to forget who the child is and to keep in mind their personality, the context, and the situations they may be going through. This is the only way we can help them with what they need in a personalized way.

Many times, children misbehave when they feel frustrated about not being able to get what they want. For example, fights between siblings over a toy are a common occurrence.

How to act when children misbehave

Some recommendations regarding how to act in the presence of misbehavior are the following:

  • Avoid labels. We must discard those phrases such as “you’re a bad child” or “it’s always the same with you”.
  • Reinforce appropriate behaviors.
  • Recognize their achievements and when they do things right.
  • Connect with their emotions. It’s crucial to approach children with empathy, as things happen to all of us that overwhelm us.
  • Ask what’s going on with them, what they need, and how we can help them.
  • Teach them to breathe as a way to help them relax. Using fun and clear phrases such as “inflate and deflate like a balloon” can make it easier to practice.
  • Anticipate what’s going to happen. For example, when you know that a trip to the grocery store usually ends in a tantrum, you can explain that you’re going shopping and that they won’t be able to get everything they want, but they’ll be able to pick out one thing they want. Also, avoid this type of situation when you know your child’s already hungry, tired, or irritable.
  • Help them wait and think before they act. This is a way to exercise self-control.
  • Avoid using manipulation and threats. We must do away with phrases such as “if you keep this up, I won’t love you anymore” or “if you don’t stop now, I’m leaving you alone.”

Keep your expectations in check

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that, many times, misbehavior is tinged with personal, social, and cultural expectations. We often hear phrases such as “because in my time, things were solved differently” or “with my parents, you’d never have gotten away with…”. These phrases tend to be comparative and are based on past experiences. Therefore, they’re often contextualized and don’t take into consideration the fact that times change, as well as certain practices and parenting styles.

Therefore, we should be cautious when we think that children are misbehaving. It’s important to ask ourselves if this is the case or if our expectations are excessive for their age or inappropriate for the times we’re living in. Of course, the need to educate with limits, responsibility, and respect is transversal to all times and contexts.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Pinta, S., Pozo, M., Yépez, E., Cabascango, K., & de los Ángeles Carpio, M. (2019). Primera infancia: estudio relacional de estilos de crianza y desarrollo de competencias emocionales. CienciAmérica: Revista de divulgación científica de la Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica8(2), 171-188.
  • Bilbao, Alvaro (2015) El cerebro del niño explicado a los padres. Plataforma Actual.
  • Greco, C. (2010). Las emociones positivas: su importancia en el marco de la promoción de la salud mental en la infancia. Liberabit16(1), 81-93.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.