Lately I’ve worked with grade school children who have “misbehaved” in some pretty major ways. We have running away from organized activities, hitting family members, and yelling insulting things at parents, to name a few. These are reasons for parents, teachers, and therapists to put their heads together to figure out what is going on and help these children to behave better.

In all cases I am advising the parents to go easy on the punishment. Is this because I’m one of those free-thinking, loosey goosey psychologists? Well, I don’t think so. I certainly agree that children should not behave in this way. The children know this as well. They all feel quite bad about themselves. The parents are at a loss because punishments are not leading to better behavior. Yet they know that they cannot tolerate this behavior and be responsible parents.

This gets to my title. When you simply think of bad behavior as bad behavior, you are likely to want to deal with it with punishment. We get further by trying to understand and helping children to learn better ways to deal with frustrations. Often “misbehavior” is an immature or impulsive solution to a problem. If adults can join with children in trying to understand the problem, they can also help children learn better strategies. Here are some thoughts about how to do this.

1. Adopt a problem solving, questioning approach. This might help you be more calm as you address the problem. Problems don’t get solved when the participants are very angry.

2. Accept that you are in a bad place and it might take a some time to figure out what else to do.

3. Involve your child in the problem solving and questioning. This might help you understand what the trigger is for the behavior.

4. If your child has a learning disability, consider how this might be affecting his or her coping. For instance, a child who has great difficulty with transitions, might act out when surprised by a change in routine.

5. Instead of punishing consider brainstorming some alternative behaviors and praising your child whenever he or she uses them.

6. If you do punish, keep it brief—something like no screens for the rest of the day. Define this ahead of time, so your child knows that if he does _______, he will lose screens. Only use punishment if you are also praising or rewarding the good behavior.

I know that this is a tall order. Many people need the help of a psychologist or therapist to help with the problem solving. But in time, many families learn to do this. When they do, they can get past “misbehavior” with less disruption to all. I wish you well. And I would be interested to know what strategies have been helpful in your family.

Author's Bio: 

Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. ( educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at