If only children came with an instruction manual. Our beautiful baby comes into the world and fills our hearts with more joy than we could have imagined. Their smiles make our hearts melt and the excitement of witnessing each milestone is indescribable. Then one day, the honeymoon period ends and the challenging behaviors begin! That precious little toddler starts to throw tantrums and use the word “No!” Our curious preschooler starts testing the limits to see where the line is drawn. We are faced with the challenges of aggressive behavior, talking back, lying, and defiance. Where is that manual when we really need it?

Our children may not come with instructions, but decades of research on child behavior and development has given us something very close. If there was a manual for understanding misbehavior in children, it would probably include these important steps:

The 9 Temperament Traits

Activity level
approach to novelty
emotional intensity
quality of mood
sensory sensitivity
Learn your child’s temperament

A child’s temperament is made up of characteristics that define their behavioral style. These traits are inherited and can be observed from infancy. There are nine categories that have been defined to describe temperament: Activity level, regularity, adaptability, approach to novelty, emotional intensity, quality of mood, sensory sensitivity, distractibility, and persistence. For example, does your child have a calm or energetic personality? Is he open and excited about new experiences or fearful and reserved? Understanding your child’s personality and temperament sets the stage for managing the challenging behaviors that lie ahead.

Know what to expect

Every parent should have a basic understanding of child development. Countless books, websites, and classes about child development are available to parents. It is important to know what behaviors to expect as your child grows. Tantrums and testing limits are normal parts of development. If we know those behaviors are coming, we can mentally and emotionally prepare for them. We are less likely to take those behaviors personally or feel that we have done something wrong.

  • Children often misbehave if there is a need that is not being met.

  • When you discover your child’s stress triggers, you can make changes to help your child cope.

  • Children need love, affection, safety, a sense of power, and a feeling of belonging

Understand the message they are communicating

Behavior in children can be complex, but at times it can also be very simple. Children often misbehave if there is a need that is not being met. Are they hungry? Tired? Do they have excess energy or feel overstimulated? Aside from basic needs, children also have emotional needs that may be overlooked. They need love, affection, safety, a sense of power, and a feeling of belonging. Emotions are very powerful and difficult for children to understand. In an attempt to cope with those overwhelming emotions (e.g., anger, fear, hurt, boredom, anxiety), children often behave in a way that serves as a coping strategy. Yelling at mom may release anxiety and tension. Although it serves a purpose in that moment, the behaviors may be harmful and unhealthy. If we can identify what is being communicated, we can give them healthier ways to cope.

Recognize the power of attention

Attention is one of the most powerful rewards we can give our children. Whether positive or negative attention, children soak it up. Be sure you are using it wisely! Ask yourself, “What behaviors am I rewarding?” and “Have others rewarded this behavior with attention?” Use constant praise and encouragement when you see behaviors that need rewarding, but make a conscious decision to ignore and take away attention from the behaviors that need to stop. If we start using attention strategically, it can become a powerful tool in understanding and managing behavior.

“What we give our attention to – grows.”Kenneth Blanchard

Consider other possibilities

Beyond the typical causes of behavior, there are times when something else is going on that needs to be addressed. Factors such as illness, trauma, hormone changes, chemical imbalances, and neurological differences can greatly impact behavior in children. These possibilities should be considered when all other explanations have fallen short. A medical, psychological, or neurological evaluation may be necessary to piece together the puzzle.

Understanding is the first step toward preventing and changing difficult behaviors. Following these steps of the “instruction manual” will at least give us greater confidence to face the challenges ahead. Maybe this whole parenting thing doesn’t have to be so confusing after all!

Lindsay Asawa, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Missouri City Family Counseling in Sienna Plantation. She provides consultation and evaluations for all ages, parenting workshops, and business and school presentations. Dr. Asawa can be reached at (832) 844-5576 or