Why Children Misbehave and What You Can Do About It

As a consulting psychologist for over 32 years, I have literally witnessed over 10,000 children and families who have come for help at the children’s mental health centre in Toronto. This has been a rich and almost breathtaking experience for me. These children and families have taught me a lot. Most of all they taught me what information in the professional literature was helpful and what was not. Of the most useful came from Piaget. He taught us that up until the time children became adolescents they are in the “concrete” stage of thinking. This means that they think much more through action than through words, and even when they think internally, they imagine things in very “concrete” terms. They don’t have a lot of abstract concepts. The next stage of thinking, is called “abstract reasoning,” which arrives when children turn 11 or so.

One very concrete example of this is that in our centre, we used to have a lot of trouble with the kids when they came with their parent(s) for sessions. In the early days, in the 1980s, they would typically misbehave, start running around the room, fight with their siblings, be very demanding and whiney with their parent(s), turn the lights on and off. You name it! The parents would then look at us imploringly, saying “Well, what are you going to do about this?” It was not a good situation. Then the world of family therapy changed in the 90s. Not necessarily because of Piaget’s ideas, but more from a group of therapists who called themselves “solution-focussed.” As a result of their innovations, we started drawing scales on the board and asking family members to rate themselves on various dimensions, such as how important an issue was for them, and or how upset they were about something. A very interesting thing happened when we moved from merely talking about the topic to actually doing something—writing on the board. The children became much more interested in what we were doing, and actually started becoming more cooperative with the process we were trying to carry out. It was an astounding difference. My understanding of Piaget helped me to see what was happening. The more we did as opposed to just talk about, the smoother the sessions were.

As a result we instituted a new policy. Family workers always came to sessions with a plastic basket of small toys that the children could use to occupy themselves while the adults talked. We explained to them that we might be asking them questions and they would need to stop playing and answer and they agreed. In the 20 years since family workers have been using the baskets, we have not had one incident of child misbehaviour of note in all our hundreds of sessions. Sometimes the parents protest, but not too loudly, that the child should pay attention and be a full participant, that it is rude to play when others are talking to you. We then explain that children are in a different stage of cognitive development, where they need to be busy, and we then model for them how to manage children in this stage of their lives. You see for a child – “talking is not doing.”

Getting back to Piaget, children pay much less attention to our words than to our actions, because actions are concrete, and words generally are not. Words are filled with many abstract concepts, such as “behave,” or “cooperate.” Those words need to be defined for children in concrete terms, not just utterred . Children, Piaget says, literally think through their behaviour. They don’t think inside their heads the way adults do, but rather “do” much more than adults do. They engage in trial and error thinking, in the world, not in their heads.

Another example of this, is watching people while they ride on public transportation. Adults are typically engaged in one of adult’s favourite activities, thinking. An adult on the subway is usually either reading, listening to music, or just day dreaming, but basically inside their own heads. The children, however, don’t usually do this. If the parent has not brought something for them “to do,” then they find things to do, like run around, throw things, or bother people. The bottom line—if you don’t bring things for your children to do, they will find something to do, because doing something is what children like to do. Being busy is how their brains work. So if you are the adult in a child’s life and you want to live peacefully with that child, then the sooner you recognize this fact, the sooner your life will become more manageable. I would strongly encourage you to carry a bag of “things to do,” that you think would engage your child, even for a short period of time. They don’t need to be expensive things. Things from the dollar store will do just fine. In fact, something new and novel, will often engage a child, for at least 20 minutes to a half hour. If you keep putting things in front of your child to do, then you will not have to be chasing after him/her to stop doing something that you really don’t want them to be doing, like climbing on the walls or other people.

I recall the day my step-daughter moved out of this concrete stage into the abstract thinking phase. She was 11 and for the first time ever, we were sitting together at the kitchen table in the middle of the day and she just seemed content to be sitting and not doing anything. She would typically be drawing or practicing her penmanship, or something. I commented on it and she looked at me with a perplexed look on her face. She really hadn’t noticed the profound change, but I did. I knew life would be a lot easier for me from then on. I would have to do far less colouring and keeping her company in her constant need for activity. There is light at the end of end of childhood!


children drawing