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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. 

How to Teach

Children learn best when a good example and effective teaching are combined. In this section you will learn The Teaching Pattern, a simple, effective way to teach your children.

Why does a child misbehave over and over again?

We’ve all learned the hard way that a child’s misbehavior, such as crying or whining or hitting for young children and yelling or worse for older children, won’t stop just because we want it to or because we punish it. We get into a cycle of frustration with no end in sight.

What should we do to correct, or better yet prevent this misbehavior? First, we should understand that research says a child’s misbehavior has a purpose. When we understand that our children's behavior is their way of trying to get an important need met, we will treat them with more understanding and kindness.  We will also recognize that we need to teach them better ways to meet their needs.

Teaching Children Alternatives to Misbehavior

A well-researched teaching pattern can help us. Apply this teaching pattern to helping your children learn behavior that will allow them to meet their needs and displace the need for misbehavior.

The teaching pattern is defined below.

The Teaching Pattern

  1. Describe. Explain the steps of the new behavior and explain its benefits to your child.
  2. Show. Demonstrate the behavior, roleplaying it several times.
  3. Practice. Ask the child to say the elements of the behavior and to show you she knows how by role-playing. Continue to practice until the child can do it as taught.
  4. Give feedback. Praise successful performance of the behavior by the child; demonstrate again the aspects that need correcting; positively encourage until the behavior shown by the child is correct.

Following the teaching experience, watch for times when your child uses the new skill. These times are perfect for praising and encouraging continued use of the "better way."

Examples Complete with Dialogs

Click on the teaching icons above to see examples of the teaching pattern.

Teaching Teens to Accept Feedback and Consequences

Accepting feedback and consequences for behavior is not a natural response of teenagers. But learning to do this will benefit the teenagers and the family.

Teenage Application of the Teaching Pattern

  1. Describe the skill and explain why it's important. Parent (Dad): I know taking feedback from someone else and accepting consequences can be hard because it’s sometimes hard for me. But when you have do this, there are things you can do to make it easier:
  • Look at the person who is talking to you.
  • Don’t argue, whine or complain.
  • If you disagree, ask to talk about it later, when neither of you is upset.

When you accept the other person's suggestions and don't argue about consequences, the other person sees you are willing to work things out, and that person will be more likely to help you in the future. This is why I think it's important to accept consequences and feedback? Why do you think it’s important?

Teenager: “Looks like it will make everyone chill.”

2.  Show what the skill looks like.

3. Practice by asking the young person to restate the steps and demonstrate the behavior.

4. Encourage, positively correct, and praise, giving encouragement, correcting positively by pointing out what what the teen did correctly, and then explaining what he needs to do differently--praising frequently.  Be sure to praise your child over the next few weeks whenever you see him successfully using part or all of the skill.

Teaching Young Children to Follow Directions

Following directions is one of the most important behaviors a child can learn. It has benefits at home, school and elsewhere. To teach a child how to follow directions, you can apply the pattern as follows:

The Teaching Pattern Applied to Young Children:

1. Describe the skill and why it's important 

Mom:  Let's talking about following directions.  When someone asks you to do something, there are three things you need to do:

  • Look at the person,
  • Say “OK.”
  • Start fast, and finish what you were asked to do.

I think It’s important to follow directions because it gives us more time to do fun things. Why do you think it’s important to follow directions?

Child: “I don’t get in trouble.”

2. Show what the skill looks like.

Mom:  You be the Mom, and I'll be you.  Give me a direction to follow.

Child:  Put my truck on the bed.

Mom repeats the three steps; focuses her eyes on the child, says "OK," then quickly puts the truck on the bed.

3. Practice with the child saying the steps and doing the behavior.

Mom: Now it's your turn.  Please bring me the book from the table.

Child: Repeats the three steps; looks at Mom, says "OK," and quickly gets the book from the table.

4. Encourage, positively correct, and praise - Give encouragement, correct positively by pointing out what the child did correctly, then explain what the child needs to do differently--praising frequently.

Mom: That was awesome.  You remembered all the steps, and you did them just right.

Child:  Good!

Be sure to offer praise over the next few weeks whenever you see the child successfully using part or all of the skill.

Anticipating Other Useful Skills to Teach Your Children

Listed below are several skills you may find useful in teaching your children. Once you become good at using the Teaching Pattern, you can come up with your own steps tailored to your children’s ages and the skills they need to learn.

Making a Polite Request

  • Look at the person.
  • Use a pleasant voice.
  • State the specific request.
  • Say "please."
  • Say "thank you."

Disagreeing Appropriately

  • Look at the person.
  • Use a pleasant voice.
  • Make a concern/empathy statement.
  • State the disagreement specifically.
  • Give a reason why you disagree.
  • Say "thank you."
man and boy standing in front of sunset

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.