Seeing Behind “Bad” Behavior

Kids struggling with chronic emotional and behavioral problems are sometimes labelled as "misbehaving" by parents and teachers alike. Here's how to speak to the child behind the behavior.

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As a practicing psychologist, many clients over the years have taught me (Mitch) a great deal about how they were regarded by parents, teachers, and other caregivers when they “misbehaved,” “disrupted,” or “manipulated” others as kids. They taught me the importance of learning to balance holding children accountable with a heavy dose of compassion.

My clients (some kids and some adults contemplating their upbringing) very much wish more people who were charged with their care had learned how to see and reach “behind” their behavior. While they may have indeed misbehaved, and while they may acknowledge the need for consequences for these actions, they just want people to understand what was really driving things—an unseen inner landscape of turmoil and stress.

Consider this anecdote from my co-author who bravely shares his experience as a young student.

• • •

I was officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the age of eight. Mornings were particularly difficult for me growing up as a child and it was often a struggle for me to school on time.

Before school one morning, I was sitting with my one of my older sisters on the couch watching TV. I was having a good morning and was experiencing little to no anxiety, which was rare. As brothers and sisters do, we ended up in an argument over what to watch. My sister got so upset with me that when she was handing over the remote control to me she “accidentally” hit me on the temple on the left side of my forehead with, causing some swelling and what became a sizeable welt. I can actually remember my mother telling my sister that she was even more upset with her because, “Joe is actually doing well today and you ruined it!”

I told my mother that my head felt “okay” and that I still wanted to go to school. Often when I would experience panic attacks in the mornings I would need to excuse myself from the class to go to get a drink of water or to the bathroom in order to calm down. If it was a particularly difficult morning of anxiety, I would go to either the nurse’s office or school counselor’s office. My teacher, who knew of my issues from my parents telling her at the start of the school year, was always relatively polite but never said anything to me regarding my panic disorder. We had an unspoken understanding that she knew about it, but nothing more.

Insecurity about how others feel about you and whether you feel wanted or belong are real problems with kids with emotional and behavioral issues. Even though she was nice to me, I did not feel particularly wanted in her class but especially so on tough mornings, which in turn made those mornings even more anxiety filled as I did not feel I had the support of my teacher if I needed it.

Around noon time we started working on a group project dealing with maps and geography, which I really enjoyed. As I was working on our project, I could feel the left side of my head really start to throb. My friends said that it must be from that “golf ball” on the side of my head.

When I told my teacher how I felt, she told me to go to the fountain and drink some water and that it should help me feel better.  She said, “Joe—I can see that you have a large bump on your forehead, but I don’t want you go to the nurse. Go sit back down and put your head down on the desk and it will pass.” I told her that I had already tried that and I had even taken aspirin that my mother had given me. I said I was in real pain. I started slowly walking towards the hallway door feeling extremely upset and angry. At that point she said loud enough for all the kids to hear, “Joseph, you do NOT have my permission to go to the nurse!” I pointed to my temple and said loudly, “But my head really hurts!” At this point everyone in the class had stopped what they were doing. It was that moment when the curtain goes up and all eyes go to the stage—the stage here was my drama playing out with my teacher.

My teacher then asked me to walk out into the hallway with her. You were only sent into the hallway when you were in big trouble, so all the kids we’re really intrigued by the turn of events on what was until then an average Thursday. Feeling like I was being treated like a liar and completely confused as to why I wasn’t allowed to leave, I felt really angry. My headache had basically turned into a migraine at that point and I was very unhappy.

Once in the hallway my teacher said to me, “Joe, what is going on?” I said, “My sister hit me with the remote this morning and that’s why my head is swollen and it really hurts and I want to go to the nurse’s office.” My teacher replied, “Joe, come on. I can see that you probably have a little headache but I know what’s going on here. You can’t leave the class every time you get an anxiety attack or you’ll never get better.” My teacher turned her head sideways with a dismissive look and said, “I’ve talked to your mother before about your condition and we both agreed months ago that it was best if you toughed it out when you get anxious.” After hearing that I got visibly angry and told her, “I’m not anxious! I’m in pain!” and turned down the hallway to start walking toward the nurses office.  My teacher stood there and said loud enough to echo down the hallway, “I can’t help you anymore Joe. You can’t quit and leave every time you want to in life. You can’t live like this Joe….”

She had confirmed all of my deepest fears about her and all my other teachers with just a few sentences. She thought I was a liar whose true intent was to just get out of class. If she didn’t believe me even when I had a swollen head, when could she ever?

By the time I got to a bend in the hallway and out of view of my teacher I started bawl. She had confirmed all of my deepest fears about her and all my other teachers with just a few sentences. She thought I was a liar whose true intent was to just get out of class. If she didn’t believe me even when I had a swollen head, when could she ever? I felt blamed for all the times I had felt anxious in her class in the past and even in the future. I didn’t want those anxious thoughts and feelings more than anyone and I’m being told I’m a quitter who was not tough enough. Is this true? I thought. Am I both a quitter and wimp even though I have never wanted to wake up with panic filled thoughts? Maybe I was. I didn’t want to be those things. I could only think of how much I hated myself at that moment. I had no idea why all these unwanted anxious thoughts and emotions were attacking me each day and when it did, I felt nobody believed me, let alone could help me. And when I truly needed their help, adults will just think I’m lying to get out of having to do something.

• • •

Joe and I agree that a shift in perspective is needed for parents, teachers, and all onlookers of kids who are struggling to manage their emotions and behavior. Studies, such as those by Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, have repeatedly documented a perceptual distortion called “correspondence bias” which is common to everyone when they make judgments about the source or cause of others’ actions. Basically, when looking at others, unless there are clear external or environmental causes which render the person “blameless” (such as a young child with cancer who did nothing to create her situation), we tend to assume (incorrectly) that people’s behavior is the inevitable and complete result of their own internal traits (or conscious choices). The person who cuts us off in traffic is undeniably a “jerk.” My client who wanted to have the school nurse help with the welt on his head was an anxious “manipulator.” They chose and therefore caused this behavior to result. It is easy to see then how our empathy gets blocked for such kids.

Kids who are struggling with chronic emotional and behavioral concerns deserve the benefit of a compassionate doubt. The adult needs to let go of assumptions and agendas and sincerely wonder aloud to the child about what might be stuck for them and from the the kid’s perspective.

We need to see past the behavior, past the blame, and focus on intent, to the fact that kids are looking to do the best they can despite difficult emotional experiences we’re not even aware of. Joe’s teacher, and many parents and caregivers, are trying to be compassionate and helpful—even trying to see “behind” the emotions and behavior of the moment. While this intent is good, it often falls short because the kid does not sense the compassionate effort that comes from genuine curiosity about what’s happening for the child. Kids who are struggling with chronic emotional and behavioral concerns deserve the benefit of a compassionate doubt. The adult needs to let go of assumptions and agendas and sincerely wonder aloud to the child about what might be stuck for them and from the the kid’s perspective. Children will come to care about and respond to our help when our responses to their behavior clearly send the message of acceptance and caring. Our willingness to make a practice of such perspective-taking gives them the opportunity to connect up with us around that inner struggle, get the help they need, and let loose on what they’re capable of doing, achieving, and being.

Pause & Practice: Kid-Whispering with Kindness

The next time you’re watching a kid struggle to manage their feelings and actions, try the following practice to spark a higher, more helpful perspective.

1. Anchor yourself in your breathing. Feel the sensations of the breath in the body as you inhale and exhale one complete breath.

2. Notice something in your immediate surroundings or bodily sensations (perhaps the feel of air on your skin, your feet on the floor, or the tick of a clock). Just quickly and silently notice something that is “here and now” other than the labels, judgments and blaming thoughts about the child (e.g. being “a pain,” “manipulative,” “just looking for attention”) that are likely surfacing.

3. With genuine curiosity, ask yourself: What might they be “needing” behind this unpleasant, disruptive, angry behavior? What unmet expectation is most important to them? Don’t stop with labels of “attention” or “escaping a demand.” While these may have an element of truth, they still blame the kid in a way. Instead ask: And what might be behind that? (Hint: it will be something along the lines of looking for caring, respect, reassurance, a sense of competence, being connected and belonging to something/someone, etc.).

4. Notice any blankness, push-back, or “but” reactions in your mind and let them pass. Let go of your agendas and desired outcomes. Hold onto the need behind their behavior as if it’s a jewel you’ve discovered—a hidden treasure others have missed in this kid for a long time.

5. Wonder how this perspective on what’s behind things for this child might inform your next action. How might you act from compassion instead of consternation? Perhaps you will lean forward and whisper that you “know things are hard” and that you “want to help them get through this.” Or maybe simply loosen and let go of the scowl or the exasperated eye-rolling.

6. Wonder how this child might benefit from actions from adults informed by compassionate, “behind”-the-behavior perspective? If you in some way reach or, or stay present with them despite their difficulties, what message will that send?

7. Take in another breath and take a leap in the direction this perspective nudges. DO something to talk in a non-blaming or shaming way. Offer choices or solutions. Give them your sincere caring. Certainly make it clear that they are responsible for their negative behavior AND make it clear they are not a bad kid for having used these behaviors to wake people up to the needs behind them.

8. Adults should give kids permission to fail. We shouldn’t avoid talking to children about their problems and “imperfections”—be they emotional, physical or behavioral. The avoidant silence from adults is message enough. Kids struggling with emotional, learning, behavioral, or physical challenges are left filling in the blank stares with assumptions of blame and badness. Joe thinks we should let kids be imperfect. “Just talk to them,” he says. “Have the conversation so that they know you care.”


Gilbert, D.T. & Malone, P.S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38.

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