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Behaviour - What it is

Understanding Your Child's Behaviour

One of the biggest challenges faced by all parents today is bringing up their children. Today most parents work and need to balance work with the demands of bringing up their children. They may have questions such as "Why doesn't my two-year-old child behave like my neighbour's child who is so obedient?" The answer is that every child is unique and different.

When children misbehave we need to understand the intent and cause of their misbehaviour. A child's inappropriate behaviour should be viewed in the context of the relationship between the child and the recipient of the behaviour. A behaviour is not a problem if there is no observer / recipient. A child who screams his head off is not seen as having a behavioural problem until somebody has to deal with the behaviour or the consequences.

When we talk about behaviour, we are dealing with the observable rather than the unobservable. Behaviour is relative and subjective to each individual recipient. Hence, each recipient's reaction to a particular behaviour would vary. For instance, a child who refuses to pick up his toys may be considered mildly misbehaving by one parent but exhibiting unbearable behaviour to another.

Infants and toddlers often cannot appreciate the long-term implications of their behaviour. They often react to the here and now. Delaying of gratification is often very difficult for them. When children want something, they want it now or they may scream, bite, kick or nag.

Three main inter-related factors often help shape children's behaviour. These are their genetic make-up, the family environment and the broader culture in which the family lives.


  • Genetic make-up or temperament: Temperament or a child's genetic make-up, explains why a person behaves in certain ways in response to stimuli e.g. some children want lots of attention and like to mix with others and talk a lot. Some cry easily and are hard to settle. Some are very active and have lots of energy. Some of these characteristics can make children difficult to manage.
  • Emotionality refers to an infant's arousal in response to events in his environment. The sight of a stranger or being spoken to by a stranger may upset one child but may not affect another.
  • Activity level refers to the energy the child displays in vigorous movement and activity. An active child will find it more difficult to accept the physical boundaries set by parents and caregivers than an infant with low activity level.
  • Sociability refers to an infant's inclination for interaction with people. A very sociable child who craves attention all the time will more likely demand social contact that an infant who only demands for attention when he is hungry or wet.

A child’s temperament, emotionality, activity level and sociability appear to be related to the development of the child’s behaviour whether desirable or undesirable.

Family Environment

The family environment is perhaps the most important factor contributing to the likelihood of inappropriate behaviour. Parents' work schedules, parents' marital problems, and parenting styles may affect the degree, frequency and intensity of inappropriate behaviour. Working parents with young children may find that their children are more likely to have behavioural problems resulting from factors such as poor bonding between parents and children, inattention from fatigued parents and the conflict between children wanting attention and the parents' lack of time.

Therefore, it is important to understand what is happening in our homes; how our reactions influence our children’s behaviours. When we are trying to understand why children do the things they do it is helpful to think about what they learn from what happens around them every day.

Learning And Experience

The third factor is the role of learning and experience. A child learns to interact from the people and the environment around him. The interaction between the main caregivers and the infant in the first few months of life often determines how he would react and interact with others around him in the following years.

If nagging, crying or screaming will likely result in a sweet, chances are that his inappropriate behaviour will persist, evolving into different forms as the child grows. When children misbehave, it is likely that there is an agenda for their inappropriate behaviour.

There are four main objectives in misbehaviour. They are:

  • Attention seeking - sometimes children misbehave in order to attract attention
  • Revenge - children may seek revenge by being spiteful or doing harmful things
  • Power seeking - children will often challenge their parents to satisfy their desire for power and control
  • Helplessness - children who think of themselves as incompetent or unable to perform tasks often react with inappropriate behaviour. When children are overprotected, they easily become discouraged and helpless.

Learning to recognise the purpose of the inappropriate behaviour will help you know why children misbehave and hence manage them accordingly. Your feelings, reaction and the consequences of the behaviour are some of the ways you can recognise the nature of the misbehaviour.

1. Recognise the misbehaviour by how you feel about it

Attention seeking makes you feel  annoyed
Power seeking  makes you feel  angry
Revenge  makes you feel  hurt
Helplessness makes you feel  despondent

2. Observe how you react to the misbehaviour

Attention seeking makes you remind, coax, nag and explain
Power seeking  makes you fight or give
Revenge  makes you retaliate to get even
Helplessness makes you solve the problem yourself

3. Observe the consequences for the child who displays the misbehaviour

Attention seeking causes people to look at and speak to the child
Power seeking  causes people to stand over and supervise the child
Revenge  causes people to punish the child
Helplessness causes people to look after and protect the child

In the following scenarios, ask yourself how you feel as the parent, how you feel about the parent's reaction and what the purpose of the child's inappropriate behaviour was.

Dialogue 1

Mother: Wasn't that a lovely bath, Paul? Now you are clean and dry. There you are, Mummy will put you on your bed for a while. (Toddler John comes along and punches Paul.)
Mother: No, John! You mustn't hit your baby brother like that. You're a naughty boy.
Father: Don't do that again, John, or you will be punished!
Mother to Father: I do wish he wouldn't do that. The baby has done nothing to him.

This scenario illustrates revenge.

Dialogue 2

Jason: Mummy, I can't find my power ranger.
Mother: It is in your toy box where you always keep it.
Jason: I've looked in there. It wasn't there.
Mother: Go and look again. It was there this morning.
Jason: (Walking from the toy box) I still can't find it, Mummy. Mother For goodness sake (goes to the box). Here it is, just where I've said it'll be. Why is it that no one can find anything around here except me? You're absolutely hopeless.

This scenario illustrates helplessness.

Dialogue 3

Mother: Come on, John. It's time to put away your toys now. (Pause), John, put your toys away please. (Pause). John, Mummy will smack you if you don't put away your toys. Come on, I'll help. There, I've put the truck in the box. In it goes.

This scenario illustrates power seeking.

Dialogue 4

Mother: I'll just ring Aunt Mary and arrange to go shopping with her (dials the phone). Hello? Oh Mary, it's Jane here, How about going for a shopping trip this week? (Son starts to cry and bang his toys.) Hold on a minute, Mary (puts aside the phone). Stop it, Sam! That's being naughty. Mummy's on the phone (puts down the phone). Here's your power ranger. (Returns to phone). I'm sorry, Mary. Sam always does that when I'm on the phone. (Noise starts again). Oh dear, he broke his toy. Mary, can I ring you back when he's asleep? Bye.

This scenario illustrates attention seeking.

It is important to note the behaviour which we find troublesome may not always be a misbehaviour on the child's part. Young children are less likely to be on their best behaviour when they are hungry, frightened, tired, sick or have other unmet physical needs. Most young children are by nature curious, egocentric, with short attention span and seek immediate gratification. It is always important, when considering misbehaviour, to understand the factors involved that resulted in the misbehaviour.

Knowing why your child exhibits inappropriate behaviour and what his objectives are will help you make better decisions about what to do when you encounter these behaviours.


Birch, K (1991). Positive Parenting. From Toddlers to Teenagers. A resource book for New Zealand families. Octopus Publishing Group (NZ) Ltd.

Seymour, F (1992). Good behaviour: A guide for parents of young children. GP Publications LTd. NZ.

Sander, M.R. (1992). Every Parent. A positive approach to children's behaviour. Addision-Wesley Publishing Company, Sydney.

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