Written by Dr. Charles Galyon

Part of raising a child means teaching them almost all of the skills that they will need to get by as an adult (schools and the community pick up some of the job too). This means lots of correcting misbehavior. However, for many parents (especially those who have more “spirited” children), it may feel like this begins to dominate their interactions with their child and leads to frustration on the part of the parent and the child. It may begin to strain their relationship. Nobody wants to have a relationship with their child that is dominated by yelling, scolding, or other punishment, but this pattern often develops naturally and for good reason.

Is My Child Always Misbehaving?

In truth, the answer is definitely, “No, they are not.” Why does it feel like you always have to get on their case and correct their behavior then? Let’s use one somewhat extreme example to explain this: Are you more likely to remember all of the people that waved at you and said, “Hi” or the people that slapped you in the face whenever you walked by? One of those is common and expected, the other is unusual and extremely offensive. As an adult responsible for the child’s behavior, you will naturally notice misbehavior very quickly. Misbehavior, by its nature, tends to be offensive (meaning it aggravates us), which means it will get your attention.

Why Does It Feel Like That’s All I See?

Some children are more prone to behaviors that are considered “wrong” than others for a variety of reasons (hyperactive, anxious, easily frustrated…). Some children may specifically engage in behaviors that are antagonistic (such as aggression, defiance, or non-compliance). Almost all children engage in a variety of common appropriate behaviors. Appropriate behavior can range from common (playing quietly, eating food…) to uncommon (helping someone, doing chores voluntarily…). Uncommon appropriate behavior is likely to be noticed, but common appropriate behavior is usually overlooked. Why is this?

Common appropriate behavior is generally what is expected (for example, “well, of course they should not hit their brother”) and much of it doesn’t draw attention to itself as a result. Uncommon appropriate behavior may draw attention to itself, but it is not frequent, therefore you will still feel like your child is “always misbehaving.” So if a child could receive attention for uncommon appropriate behavior, why don’t they always do that? Well, why don’t you (as an adult) stop and help every person you see every day? It would be exhausting and the opportunity doesn’t actually present itself that often. Children do not have that many opportunities to engage in uncommon appropriate behavior, and it’s a lot of work. It’s great when it happens, and we want to pay a lot of attention to it, but it’s rare.
Though a child may often demand your attention for their inappropriate behavior, this is not the only thing they do, it just feels like it. Many children will misbehave precisely because it has gotten parental attention before. However, it would not make any sense for a child to always engage in behaviors that will receive corrections and punishment. They would undoubtedly prefer enjoyable, high quality attention from you.

What Can I Do Then?

There is no simple, fast cure for misbehavior, but there are things you can do to begin improving it and at the same time strengthening your relationship with your child. This article is about one thing: Changing the attention you give to your child’s behavior.

You need to learn how to identify and give attention for the appropriate things your child does (the common and uncommon appropriate behaviors). It is extremely difficult and you will have to train yourself to do it. Think of it as building a new habit. Learn to look for things your child does right (even “playing quietly”) and give them attention for it. Your goal is to get in there and give your child attention for appropriate behavior before they demand your attention with inappropriate behavior. It’s almost a game, and a very tricky one because we’re not really well-practiced at it. It may help to set a timer for yourself to remind you approximately every 5 to 10 minutes until it gets easier for you. In addition, you have to learn how to ignore some of the small misbehaviors that don’t really need attention or things that we specifically want to avoid giving attention (such as whining). Some of these behaviors will worsen before they get better (particularly whining), but if you give your attention to them, they’re likely to become stronger and last even longer.

Addressing misbehavior can be a complicated and challenging process. The first part of improving your child’s behavior is re-training yourself to identify and give lots of positive, high-quality attention to common appropriate behaviors. Later, you start learning more effective ways of dealing with the misbehaviors (including selectively ignoring them). Though a challenging task, keep in mind that your child would almost certainly to have praise and positive attention. We want them to learn how to get that attention appropriately instead.