Very often, parents ask me why their children engage in specific behaviors.  Many times, these are children with special needs, but many of these suggestions apply to all children.  I have a list of seven things that can explain why children do what they do.  Here’s the beginning of my list.

#1.  Children do what they do because IT WORKS!

They get what they want, they get attention, they get control of the whole household.  It works.  Let’s look first at the attention part, because I think parents generally don’t think about the power of their attention.  Here are some general principles.

  • Good attention (praise) and bad attention (yelling, punishing) serve the same function. You see them differently, but your child does not.  In fact, negative attention is often much stronger than positive attention.  Think about it.  When you praise your child, you may focus about 10 percent of your attention on him/her.  When you are angry, it is like a laser, with 150% of your attention directed to your child.  As a result, negative attention may be more reinforcing than positive attention.
  • In addition, when you are focused on one child, no one else is getting attention. Other members of the family are not getting their needs met.

In addition, you will need to consider the essential question—“Who is in control?” If one child is able to act in such a way that he/she is in control of the family, then the behavior has “worked”. It accomplished the goal of controlling everything.

The final reason that the behavior “worked”, is that the child got what he/she wanted. If it was a tantrum about a toy, a TV show or her/his own way, then if the end result was getting what was wanted, the behavior worked.

For Parents

  • Make sure that you are not inadvertently reinforcing behavior by your attention (negative or positive)
  • Make sure that behaviors only “work” if they are ones that are acceptable to you.
  • This is another reminder that parents need to be in control of the household, not children!!

If you decide to placate your children just to keep peace, you will NEVER have peace!  It will never be enough. It is much more important to have parents in charge, even though children may complain, tantrum or act out!  In the long run, parents who are authoritative (not authoritarian) will have the best success with their children.


This blog post describes the ideas and opinions of its author and does not provide professional, psychological, or therapeutic advice. Any anecdotes and examples presented in this blog post are based on the experiences of real people, but names, identifying information ,and nonessential facts have been changed throughout to protect their privacy.