Why does my child behave the way they do?

In the last couple of weeks I have been asked by many parents why their child behaves the way they do.  The more I work with children, and now interact with my own, I have come to understand that children are quite complicated little beings.  In many ways, the older children get, the easier it is to communicate with them and find out what the purpose of the behavior may be, but even as they mature it can be challenging.  Think about how difficult it can be to understand the adults in your life.

Here is a great tool that I have come across that may be of some help. In Jane Nelson’s book, Positive Discipline, she writes about the four misguided beliefs and goals that children develop of what it means to belong and have significance in this world.

1.   Undue Attention- The mistaken belief: I belong only when I have your attention.

2.  Misguided Power- The mistaken belief: I belong only when I’m the boss, or at least when I don’t let you boss  me.

3.  Revenge- The mistaken belief: I don’t belong, but at least I can hurt back.

4.  Assumed Inadequacy-The mistaken belief: It is impossible to belong. I give up.


Undue Attention

The most famous of these behaviors is attention seeking behaviors. It can be pretty easy to identify when a child wants attention. In my house, it looks like two boys running over and jumping on daddy who is busy watching football or continually talking to mommy and asking her to play while she is on the phone. Aside from driving parents crazy, what can be problematic of this type of behavior is that if we do not address it correctly, children can end up taking whatever attention they get, even negative attention.  There are many ideas on how to address this misunderstanding, but one of the most simple and effective approaches is not feeding into the negative attention seeking behaviors.  Planned ignoring is a great tool to use when your 3-year-old is throwing a temper tantrum because you are spending time with his baby sister, for example.  When the 3-year-old asks for mom’s attention in an appropriate manner, then mom can respond and give the child the attention they seek.  These children need to know that they are just as loved when mommy reads them a book as when mommy chooses to play with another sibling.

Misguided Power

The second misunderstanding is all about power and control.  This category has increased due to many reasons, but one of the most influential, is the idea that all children are winners and leaders.  The challenge becomes when they grow up and face the real world and find themselves in a less-than position.  They don’t know how to handle not winning and they can develop the idea that they are less significant.  Whether my child wins or loses or becomes the boss or follows another’s lead, it has no effect over their significance or belonging.  Many children can exhibit these behaviors, but if there were a category of diagnosis that fits misguided power, it is children who are oppositional or defiant.  When I was working at a group home, there were many times that a child would sit on his bed and literally give me the middle finger because I asked him to do something.   How do parents deal with this one? I could write another whole blog about this topic alone, but for starters, kids need to have guidance, need rules, have choices and the chance to make positive decisions to get the power they desire.


The third category is called Revenge.  Children who believe they don’t belong can express the emotional distress in many ways and one of those is by getting revenge with others.  The ability to get revenge allows them to feel some sense of significance.  The obvious challenge and cure is addressing the irrational belief that the child does not belong.  At its simplicity, a child who gets connected with others, with a passion and a purpose, will take away his/her need to get revenge.

Assumed Inadequacy

The last category is assumed inadequacy: children who believe they can not belong, which leads them to often give up.  The difference between this and Revenge is that children believe there is no possible way to belong.  This can be heart breaking for parents to realize that your child does not believe they can belong. We know that our children can belong, and what often happens is that these children give up on most tasks. As any good parent would do, we try harder and harder to get them to believe in their potential, yet we run into resistance.  This leads to parental frustration and in order to get things done, parents end up doing tasks for the child. That choice only fuels the child’s belief that they are losers. How do you handle this? Don’t give in, but instead keep encouraging by telling them that you know they can accomplish the task and let them struggle through it. When they do complete the task on their own, it will build their self-confidence and spur them on to complete more and more tasks on their own.

Children can find themselves in any one of these four categorical beliefs at any given time, but typically gravitate to one most of the time due to an ongoing irrational belief about how they belong in this world.  You may wonder what is the point to all this. The point is to understand how your child views himself in the world so that you can effectively respond to the problematic behaviors. If you don’t know the reason then you may find yourself responding in ways that keep your child stuck and you frustrated.

If you have questions about how your child views themselves and their subsequent behaviors, send me an email or give me a call and I will do my best to help.

For one more helpful tool, Check out the blog “The 6 Functions of Behavior“.



2 thoughts on “Why does my child behave the way they do?

  • Landon, I really enjoyed reading your post about the basic goals behind a child’s misbehavior. In my work in adult psychiatric and counseling, I see the long term consequences of not belonging and not having the healthy supportive attachments you’re talking about in this post. I’m not yet familiar with Jane Nelson’s writing, but I look forward to a future post about children with a misguided sense of power and how to best address it as a parent.

    • Thanks for the feedback Ryan. Glad you joined the therapy ranks and using all your talents. Hopefully over time I can produce some practical and helpful material. Take care my friend.

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