Preventing and Correcting Misbehavior

Do you find yourself getting frustrated or angry with your children when they whine, disobey, and fight? Do you find yourself trying to deal with misbehavior by yelling or punishing even though you tell yourself you won’t do that again? You are definitely not alone.

All parents have gone through times when they have tried to stop misbehavior by punishing or yelling. These tactics may appear to work at first. The misbehavior may stop for a while, but almost invariably, the negative behavior returns. The child has not learned a more positive way to meet his or her need.

According to John Herner, NASDSE President (Counterpoint 1998, p.2),

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we…

Preventing and Correcting Misbehavior focuses on how to help children learn to behave through teaching rather than through punishment.

We invite you to begin by viewing the 7-minute video “You Can Do This--Preventing and Correcting Misbehavior.” Take a look at the Big Picture for an overview of the principles of preventing and correcting misbehavior. Then review and choose an activity for teaching positive behaviors to prevent or replace misbehavior in the section labeled Things to Try. We would enjoy hearing your stories about how these activities helped or about other things you did that worked for you.

Remember, you’re not alone. You can do this

Begin With Your Own Attitudes and Behavior.

What should we do to correct, or better yet prevent misbehavior? We start by changing our own behavior when we respond to the misbehaving child. We do this because we often unknowingly add to the problem through the way we approach it. To change our own behavior we have to learn to teach rather than to punish.

As a parent you are a teacher, and teaching is a better form of discipline than punishment. The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means to teach. It is much more effective to teach children what they should do than to punish them. If children experience only punishment, misbehavior may stop for a time but it will return because they haven't learned a better way to meet their needs.

Those who study how to prevent and correct misbehavior describe a cycle of punishment, which traps many parents.  Trying to correct misbehavior by yelling or punishing is destined to fail--there is a much more effective way.

Understanding Misbehavior

One parent said, “Her whining frustrates me so badly that I yell at her to stop. I’m relieved when it stops, but feel a bit guilty about yelling. Why does she start whining again? It is so frustrating to both of us.”

Another parent described a time when her teenage sons teased and hit younger brothers and sisters. No amount of threatening would change this behavior. Even following through on the threats was fruitless.

Preventing is Preferred to Correcting

Misbehavior can be prevented by teaching a positive alternative.

A lot of misbehavior can be prevented if we will teach a child the appropriate behavior before it is needed. For example, before going to Grandma’s for dinner, you may teach your child to say “No thank you” and pass the broccoli on rather than pouting and whining, “Yuck, I hate broccoli!” when it is offered.

When the misbehavior is not anticipated in advance, then we can use the misbehavior as a teaching moment as we correct it with a positive behavior that meets the need.

The teaching tools in the Things to Try section will provide you with specifics. Once you are very familiar with the teaching process described there, try it out with a family member.

The Cycle of Punishment

As parents we can get ourselves into a “cycle of punishment.” Our child misbehaves: for example, hitting a sibling. We punish or yell to get the behavior to stop. The behavior does stop and we feel successful. But the child’s need hasn’t been satisfied, so the behavior starts again later. From the graphic you can see that the cycle just keeps going.

Misbehavior meets a need for the child. Children will continue to try to meet their needs through misbehavior unless we teach them more appropriate ways. 

Our assumptions about children’s behavior affects how we treat them. Too often we assume that misbehavior is willful disobedience needing to be controlled by punishment. When we understand that all behavior has a purpose, then we look at the intent and consider the misbehavior differently.

Benefits of Teaching Rather Than Punishing

  • The purpose of teaching is to correct misbehavior and instill self-discipline in children. The purpose of punishment is to stop misbehavior by inflicting pain or penalty.

  • Teaching focuses on future correct behavior, whereas punishment focuses on past incorrect behavior.

  • Parents who teach demonstrate an attitude of love and concern for their child—they remain calm and relaxed. Parents who punish demonstrate an attitude of hostility, frustration and stress.

  • Teaching helps children develop a positive self-image, self-worth, and self-confidence. Punishment leads to feelings of guilt, anger, hostility, and inferiority in children.


Adults also misbehave at times, so remember to look at your child’s misbehavior with understanding, stop and take a breath, and look for the opportunity to teach. Remember that more than just teaching is required for someone to master a skill. Just like learning to read, learning new behavior takes encouragement, trial and error, and lots of practice. Think of this as teaching by persuasion rather than by force, as pointed out by Russell M. Nelson Ensign, May 2008, p. 9):

When a child needs correction, you might ask yourself, "What can I say or do that would persuade my child to choose a better way?”

When giving necessary correction, do it quietly, privately, and lovingly--not publicly. If a rebuke is required, show an increase of love promptly so that seeds of resentment will not remain. To be persuasive, your love must be sincere... 

Do not try to control your children. Instead, listen to them, help them to learn (a better way), inspire them . . .  You are God’s agents in the care of children He has entrusted to you. Let His divine influence remain in your hearts as you teach and persuade. 

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You Can Do This