The Need to Misbehave

Probing for security.

From: "Solid Sea and Southern Skies" by Alex Gough

From: “Solid Sea and Southern Skies” by Alex Gough

Mountaineers crossing a glacier in the spring do something that looks odd from a distance. Before each step, they reach down and stick the butt end of their ice ax into the snow. They are probing for weaknesses in the snow substructure that could signal a hidden crevasse. Subsurface crevasses can be covered by a thin roof of snow that will collapse with the first step onto it. Understandably, mountaineers want to walk on only solid snow. Some have died walking across what looked like an unbroken snow field.

Kids do the same thing. They probe their world to see how solid it is. The more devastating a fall can be, the more they will seek to avoid one. The children who are always probing their world to see if the supports will hold are the children who depend most acutely on those supports.

Let’s say that again. Kids who can’t trust themselves to maintain self-control need their caregivers to provide the control instead. They will check us out hundreds of times to see if we’re reliable, if we can keep their world safe.

frustrated parentChildren who are testing us seem to be malevolent in their intentions, but I don’t believe this is often the case. “He’s just a bad kid,” is almost never true.

Repeat infractions never feel innocently done. They feel like a challenge to our authority. “For the bazillionth time, NO! You may not leave our house without permission.” How is that not active defiance? Are some children purposefully incapable of learning?

No. They are probing for weaknesses. No matter how much it feels like it, children don’t plan to burden us with their misbehavior. Insecure kids incur the same consequence multiple times, not to inconvenience us, not to punish us and not to tire us, but – in part – to reassure themselves that the world is safe and reliable.

Testing boundaries to see if they are firm

For example, if we require them to ask permission to play outside, they will tell us instead of asking. If we allow that increment, they’ll soon tell us they are going to a trusted friend’s house. (“I’m heading over to Jeremy’s house, Mom.”) If that one flies, they’ll change to “Going to my friend’s house, Mom.” by which they mean the friend whose parents use marijuana and leave it unprotected when they’re away.

sugar drinksLikewise, if we set a rule that there is no soda pop in the house, they will pester us for carbonated fruit juice which is, ostensibly, healthy. If we relent on that, they’ll beg for diet soda whcih isn’t unhealthy. If we relent on that, they won’t be happy without sugared cola. Energy drinks are next.

The more we grant favors trying to please them, the harder they will push for the next increment and the next. If, at any point along the way, we decide to hold firm, the pestering still doesn’t stop.

It’s like the converse of lying. When someone says ten true things, then lies once, it may take a hundred truths before we trust them again. When kids push at our boundaries, and we capitulate, it vaporizes the security they were depending on, and, perversely, rewards their efforts. They will enjoy the reward for a short time, but soon are back to the probing, pushing and trying to see if they can move the boundary.

This is very tiring behavior to live with as a parent. It feels like behavior that is designed to exhaust us, punish us, break us. But that’s not true.

Children who can internalize the boundaries we set for them feel free to explore the safe world those boundaries create. “Here’s 200 healthy drinks. Pick any one you want and enjoy!” Most will do just that.

Kids who cannot maintain their own limits set up shop right next to the boundaries we set for them. Offer them 200 beverage choices, and they will press for the very first one that you disallow. They don’t want to enjoy the “world of safe drinks” you have created. They want to know about the boundary.

Mountain climbers roped together for safety

Mountain climbers roped together for safety

The need expressed by this intense probing is not the need for control, but the need for us to provide control.  Like mountaineers, they need to know how reliable we have made their world. Is this a snowfield to play in or the man-eating kind? Kids who challenge us are begging us to be solid and strong for them. On the surface, they may seem resolute and self-assured. Who would work so hard toward a small favor if it didn’t mean the world to them?

But deep down, their need for us to be strong and dependable is bottomless. For some children, the crevasses are on the inside.


Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

Posted in behavior, children, parenting
2 comments on “The Need to Misbehave
  1. Linda says:

    My husband says our 7 year old daughter is trying to kill us. Lol. She is always doing something most kids don’t do…always pushing limits.


  2. chaddgr says:

    I would like to describe an additional viewpoint, as a parent who can already be too quick to find fault with herself for behavior that is primarily due to a child’s temperament, not the inappropriate implementation of parenting skills. Parents of temperamentally challenged children have less to show for their efforts, already, so deserve all the more credit, particularly when they decide to use their own good judgment instead of adhering to a one-size-fits-all discipline approach that doesn’t take a child’s unique needs or situation into account. “Bedtime will be later, tonight, because we will be watching fireworks.” Sometimes parents SHOULD make exceptions to the rules and onlookers shouldn’t pass judgment on their parenting skills, as we see them chasing after a child across a parking lot or unable to ever spread their blanket out on the beach and relax.

    If parenting were just a matter of enforcing rules, we could be replaced by robots. With temperamentally challenged children, a tantrum may not simply be an attempt to get their own way. The author of The Explosive Child, Ross Greene, has said, “Being manipulative requires forethought. These kids don’t have forethought!” It’s not learned behavior; it’s maladaptive behavior. They end up alienating themselves from the very people whose help they were trying to get, making mountains out of a mole hills.

    “Mom, I know you won’t let me spend my birthday money on that “Ice Axe” I wanted to order, but, could you take me to the Higher Ground Rock Climbing Center for my birthday, instead? Mountain climbing might even help me pay attention and not be so impulsive! You could come, too!”

    Each spring, I would move the chalk line on our sidewalk a little farther, to show how far they could ride their Big Wheels bikes. At some point we need to teach them how to think for themselves, however, even if it means allowing them to have to learn some lessons the hard way, and not blame ourselves when they fall. If we are still concerned about their safety, however, as they prepare to head out into the great unknown, perhaps we could also buy them snow shoes– just in case!


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Oren Mason MD
Oren Mason MD

Oren Mason MD

Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

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