Imagine this scene. Your children are playing Lego quietly together after bathing and putting on their pyjamas. You are finishing up making dinner smiling to yourself. Silently congratulating yourself on the culinary delights you are preparing and the stellar job of parenting that you are managing when WW3 erupts from the bedroom and the children come running out screaming at each other and crying.

Once you hear the whole story: he pulled her hair out (that’s true because you can still see a big wad of it in his grip) because she stole his Lego creation (which she is currently brandishing as a weapon and it looks quite amazing - perhaps he’ll become an engineer one day) because it was made of some of her pieces that she got for her fourth birthday (who can remember such details?)

What do you do next? (NB Hiding under your bed is not a legitimate option!)

In moments like this I see two choices – focus on the child’s behaviour (which generally involves some form of punishment) or find out why that behaviour occurred in the first place.

Often we focus on the behaviour and want to punish the child because this “bad” thing they have done has ticked us off. It has pushed our buttons and we are embarrassed or seeing red. Punishment can be helpful to change behaviour when kids are younger but at the core of punishment is fear and shame and I do not find this a healthy motivator.

When we have used fear to control our children, they either end up conforming by becoming “perfect” (which looks good on the outside but ends up with them losing themselves on the inside) or they rebel. I’m not convinced that either of those are great outcomes so I’m going to move onto the other choice when faced with “bad” behaviour: getting to the bottom of why it occurred in the first place.

I find that when our children do something to anger us, time out is a very good option for everyone, mum and dad included! It helps us calm our emotions down and allows our frontal lobes (the part of our brain that can think logically and problem solve) to come back on line before we make any rash decisions or say something we will later regret.

Once calm, we can consider the following thought…

Perhaps my child is not misbehaving just because they are a little deviant. Perhaps my child’s behaviour is trying to tell me something in the only way they know how!

What could they possibly be communicating, I hear you ask? Any fool can see that they are playing up and need a consequence. Well that could be, but I submit to you this truth:

All human behaviour is about meeting our needs.

Our child’s behaviour is the same. They are trying to get their needs met even if they are unable to articulate what their needs are. William Glasser (the psychologist behind Choice Theory) suggests we are motivated by five core needs of survival, love and belonging, empowerment, freedom and fun*. It is also easy to see that we are very motivated to avoid what causes us pain, both physically and emotionally and to do more of what makes us feel good!

There is, of course, a lot more to human behaviour, and we do need consequences to help our children learn what is acceptable and what is not. But for today, let’s consider that there may be more to “bad” behaviour than just plain naughtiness.

Once we realise that we are all motivated to get our needs met we can keep this in mind when our children are not being the best version of themselves. Allow your child’s troubling behaviour alert you to the fact that there could be other things going on under the surface. They may have unmet needs and may be trying to meet these needs in any way they can. Take a minute to figure out what needs your child is trying to meet and help them to do it in a more appropriate or healthy way.

Perhaps they need a hug to be reminded that they are loved. Maybe some more freedom to make their own decisions about things that are not a matter of life or death. Perhaps your family needs to take some time out to go and have some fun at the park or the beach. Maybe they need your encouragement to empower them to confront someone who is not treating them well at school.

As you help them to get their needs met or to meet their own needs themselves, your child will be relieved. Their behaviour will generally settle down because they were heard and in time you can teach them other, healthier ways to communicate their needs.

You can go back to cooking dinner knowing that you are doing a great job of parenting after all!

Gretchen Mitchell

*for more on William Glasser’s five needs check out