Coping with Disturbing Behavior
August 1986

“Coping with Disturbing Behavior,” Ensign, Aug. 1986, 34

Handbook for Families

Coping with Disturbing Behavior

For all families, “love at home” is a desirable condition. But in even the most loving homes there will occasionally occur some disturbing behaviors. Some behaviors that concern families the most include:

  • Lying

  • Cheating

  • Stealing

  • Swearing

  • Tattle-telling

  • Being Negative

  • Bullying

  • Selfishness

  • Tantrums

  • Destructiveness

  • Teasing

  • Whining

  • Arguing

  • Complaining

  • Rowdiness

  • Shyness

  • Dependency

In the course of growing up, each of our children will exhibit some, perhaps even many of these behaviors. Sometimes these behaviors are manifestations of a stage of physical or emotional development. At other times, a child may only be copying behaviors. Occasionally the behaviors stem from an unmet need or a traumatic event.

Causes of Disturbing Behavior

The good news about disturbing behavior is that the causes can usually be identified—and once identified, these behaviors can be dealt with. In recognizing these causes, we must constantly be aware of the one most influential factor in our children’s behavior: us. As parents we must guard against the tendency to actually provoke in our children the very behaviors that disturb us. (See Eph. 6:4; 1 Cor. 13:5; Col. 3:21.) Our reactions to our children, when we are not motivated by love for them, will nearly always trigger annoying behaviors and attitudes.

The five general causes described below are intended to help us see the various influences on our children. Familiarity with these possible causes will enable us to avoid provoking undesirable behavior in our children and identify the causes if it occurs.

Disturbing Behaviors May Be Related to a Stage of Growth. Children behave in certain ways often because they are in a particular stage of physical growth or social maturation. The behavior, in fact, may be normal for children of that age. Is there anything about childhood so universally understood as the “terrible twos”? It is normal for a two- or three-year-old child to say no to virtually everything anyone suggests. Children that age are just learning to exert their own will and may try to prove their independence in ways that are not acceptable to us.

Another example of a stage of growth is the competitive nature of the six-year-old. Six-year-olds like to play games in which someone clearly wins—particularly if that someone is them. (For this reason, they especially like to play games with their parents or older brothers and sisters.) They like to win so much, in fact, that they may be very ungracious losers. They may even resort to cheating.

As we try to determine the causes of a child’s behavior, we should try to remember if we behaved similarly when we were the same age. A mother of a teenage son, for example, wanted him to cut his hair. She became frustrated when he refused, and the situation caused many conflicts. One day her husband mentioned that when he was a teenager he cut his own hair very short, and his parents tried to get him to grow it longer. After hearing this, the mother concluded that extreme hairstyles are probably just one way teenage boys assert their independence.

If you really can’t remember what it was like to be six or twelve or sixteen, look at children the same age as your child. How do they act? A Scoutmaster, for example, took his Scouts to a ward dance. But when the boys got there, they wouldn’t dance with the girls. Instead, they ran around and played tag the whole evening. The Scoutmaster was disturbed by their behavior. If he had done some checking, he would have known that there wasn’t anything wrong with his Scouts, and probably nothing wrong with the dance. Boys at that age are just very self-conscious about dancing.

If a child’s behavior is due to a stage of growth, we can relax. We need only to be patient; the stage will pass. Our lives will be more pleasant, and our relationships with our children as they mature will be more open and rewarding if we can accept and be patient with behaviors that come with growth. The Doctrine and Covenants counsels us, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained … only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:41.)

On the other hand, we need not accept everything a child does just because he is “going through a stage.” Unkind or harmful behavior must be guided down avenues that will be safe for the child, for property, and for others associated with him. If your little boy is banging his father’s hammer on the kitchen floor, take him outside and give him some nails and an old piece of wood.

Redirecting behavior can be done without making the child feel he is bad. (See D&C 121:43.) For the very young, we may need to ask:

—What alternative activities will help my child replace undesirable behavior with acceptable behavior?

—What did my parents and teachers do (or what could they have done) when I was this age to steer my behavior in more desirable directions?

Children can learn to replace undesirable behaviors with more mature, acceptable ones, but it takes time.

Disturbing Behaviors May Be Caused by Unfulfilled Needs. In order to fulfill certain needs, a child may try a variety of behaviors. Many of these behaviors may seem irrational to adults, but they are often attempts to get attention. In essence, the child is waving a flag, saying, “Hey, look at me. Something is wrong in my life. I’m not sure exactly what, but please help me.”

Several clues can help us discern if a child is struggling in this way. The intensity of his behavior is one clue. If a child is trying to fill a need, he will put a lot of energy into his behavior. The more desperate a child is, the more intense his behavior will be. Suppose a young boy’s mother is very busy and he feels that she is ignoring him. He may try to be around her all he can and constantly try to get her attention. If his mother says, “I’m busy now,” and sends him out to play, his need for her attention will increase and he may intensify his efforts to be near her. He may throw a tantrum or say deliberately hurtful things to her or a playmate just to get her attention. This behavior will not go away until his need is filled. In some cases, if the need goes unfulfilled long enough, the child may become discouraged and give up trying to do anything at all.

A second clue is when the same kind of disturbing behavior occurs in different places. A child is signaling for help when he has the same type of problems at home, at school, and at church.

A third clue may be that a child stops one annoying behavior only to start another one. When a child has a need that isn’t being met and his attention-getting behavior isn’t successful in meeting it, he will try another.

Anger is no solution to disturbing behavior, especially when it comes from an unfilled need. The child needs our love and patience more than ever. If we misunderstand the reasons for his behavior and get angry, we not only add to the burden the child is carrying, but we also may fail to see solutions to the problem—solutions that may be right before our eyes. (See D&C 58:20; Prov. 15:1; Ps. 37:8.)

In coping with behavior used to call attention to an unmet need, we must remember that needs do not develop overnight; they build up slowly. And usually, a child will send “help” signals for a long time before his behavior takes a disturbing turn. For this reason, we cannot expect a child to stop his undesirable behavior overnight. But if we are patient as we help him meet his need, the disturbing behavior will go away.

Disturbing Behaviors May Be Caused by Environmental Influences. Sometimes children do things because of pressures from their friends. They may swear or lie or cheat because their friends do. They may adopt a wide range of new behaviors because they are imitating somebody popular at school or on TV.

This kind of behavior usually occurs suddenly. When our children do anything that is disturbing, we should always ask ourselves, “Is it possible he may have learned it somewhere?” If so, we may need to exercise better control over what our children read or what shows they watch. We will also want to encourage them to associate with good companions.

Disturbing Behavior May Be Caused by a Disturbing Event or Situation. A traumatic event can disturb a child enough to bring on abnormal behavior. A death or divorce in the family, a move to a new city—all can be disruptive events in the lives of children.

The most distinct clue to this cause of disturbing behavior is the sudden onset of the behavior. It does not build up gradually. One day the behavior is not there, the next day it is.

A second clue is the presence of a traumatic event or an unresolved event in the recent past. In determining if something may have traumatized our child, it helps to view the world through the eyes of our children. The death of a pet or a lost toy may not be upsetting to us, but it may be devastating to a small child.

Our most effective response in a situation of this sort is to help the child understand what has happened to him. It is best to be honest when explaining events to our children—and the sooner the better. Some events, in fact, such as a move or a death, can be explained even before they occur. This may help prevent or undo the trauma associated with the event. Another way to lessen the impact of some events, such as losing a favorite pet or toy, is to get the child a replacement.

Disturbing Behavior May Occur Because the Child Hasn’t Been Properly Taught. Sometimes children misbehave because they do not recognize that their behavior is inappropriate. Basically, there are two reasons a child may lack clear understanding.

First, he may never have been taught the correct behavior. Sometimes we are too busy to teach, or we assume that our children know what is expected. Maybe we taught the oldest child and just assumed the younger ones would pick it up from him. On the other hand, some of us may be unsure of what to teach, or embarrassed, or think it is someone else’s responsibility.

As parents, we sometimes assume our children will learn about values and morality in school or church. But the chief responsibility for this kind of education is ours. Such teaching requires patience, persistence, and constant reinforcement. Telling a child what is wrong, however, is insufficient. He also needs to know the right behavior to replace the wrong behavior.

The second reason a child may be confused about the right and wrong of his behavior may be the hardest one for parents to recognize. It is that we tell him one thing and do another ourselves. In this situation, we become for them what has often been called “an uncertain trumpet” whose call is not clear. A mother, for instance, who yells at her children and tells them not to yell at each other is wasting her breath. We do not have a right to expect our children to obey us when our actions negate our words. When ignorance or hypocrisy is the cause of misbehavior, the cure is obvious. The child needs to be given clear instruction, and he deserves to see good examples. (See 1 Cor. 14:8–9.)

Misbehavior may be a symptom of any or all of the reasons discussed here. What complicates the problem even more is that similar behavior in two children could have different causes and might need to be handled differently. The accompanying chart can help us recognize the clues and find some possible solutions. Several solutions, or even a combination of solutions, may have to be tried before one is found that works.

Often, earnest prayer and cooperation between parents will lead to the solution when nothing else will.

Disturbing Behavior—Causes and Solutions



Ways of Coping

A stage of growth

1. You remember behaving similarly

2. You have seen other children behave similarly

1. Relax; be patient; the child will outgrow the stage

2. Talk with the child

An unfulfilled need

1. Behavior is very intense

2. Behavior occurs in various places

3. Different bad behaviors keep occurring

1. Identify the need

2. Fulfill the need

3. To fill a need, parents may need to change how they perceive the child and his behavior

The environment

1. Usually occurs suddenly

2. Many new behaviors at the same time

3. Loose supervision of what child is reading and watching

1. Monitor and guide the child’s learning experiences

2. Encourage the child to have wholesome friends

3. Be a good example

Disturbing event or situation

1. Occurs suddenly

2. Associated with a dramatic event

1. Guide the child’s perception of the event

2. Help the child understand and deal with the event

Child doesn’t know better

1. The child was not taught

2. Parents do not set an example of what they teach

1. Teach correct behavior

2. Be consistent and a good example

Coping with Disturbing Behavior

Recognize the Cause. The first step in coping with misbehavior is to recognize the cause. We have just discussed the major ones. The accompanying chart summarizes this information and can help you determine the cause of disturbing behavior.

Attack the Cause, Not the Child. Even though we may dislike our child’s behavior, we do not need to make him feel guilty or rejected. After all, many disturbing behaviors are calls for help from a child struggling to fill a need. He will overcome his problem much sooner with an ally than he will with a critic.

Give Encouragement and Support. We will feel closer to our children—and be more helpful and positive—if we allow ourselves to feel with them some of their emotions: the loss of an animal, toy, or friend; the feeling of rejection by their peers; the regret of a bad judgment or a mistake. And as we share these feelings with our children, we can assure them that the lessons they learn from these experiences are a valuable part of growing up. “This too shall pass” and “Yes, I know how much that hurts” are phrases that are part of such conversations.

Enlist Aid from Others. A variety of resources are available to parents. The best source of all is our Father in Heaven. He can teach us how to correct our children’s behavior. Through constant communication with him, we can receive guidance for ourselves and our family.

There are others also whom we can enlist to assist us. Our own parents or brothers and sisters often can provide helpful insights based on their experiences. We also have Church leaders, home and visiting teachers, and quorum presidents who can help and counsel with us.

Professional counselors are another resource, but we need to make sure their interests and beliefs are similar to ours. Their counseling methods should be in harmony with gospel teachings, and we should not hesitate to withdraw from their service if we feel they are not benefiting our family.

Other resources often overlooked are our children’s friends and their parents. The parents of our children’s friends may have similar problems, and working together may be of benefit to each of us.

Above all, let us always seek the Spirit in these matters. As we do so, our confidence will increase, as will our ability to guide our children in the paths that will benefit them most.

Illustrated by Cindy Spencer