Christian Parenting and Family Resources with Biblical Principles

These 4 'Bad' Behaviors Actually Reveal a Deeper Need

  • Laura Kuehn Contributor
  • 2021 12 Apr
These 4 'Bad' Behaviors Actually Reveal a Deeper Need

I love to garden but it’s never without its struggles. One year, all of my tomatoes were rotten on one end.

The tomatoes may have been “bad,” but the cause of the rot had nothing to do with the fruit itself. The problem was in the soil. The fruit simply reflected what was going on beneath the surface.

The same is true when it comes to our kids’ behaviors.

The 4 Motivators of Misbehavior

Dinkmeyer and McKay, two parent educators, co-authored a parenting curriculum called Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP). This program outlines the underlying motivations of children’s misbehaviors and how to effectively intervene. As Christians, we can pair this helpful paradigm with Scripture to create a window into the hearts of our children.

The authors identified four main categories for all misbehavior. They are:

  • Attention
  • Control
  • Revenge
  • Inadequacy

“Bad” behaviors are really a reflection of a deeper need within the heart of the child. We will take a look at four common behavioral problems that children display and seek to uncover what lies beneath. We will also take a look at Scripture to help inform us about the true needs of their hearts and how we can best meet those needs.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images

  • 1. Attention-Seeking Behavior

    1. Attention-Seeking Behavior

    Kids who are attention-seekers will do anything to be in the limelight. When faced with such behavior, parents often feel annoyed.

    Examples of Attention-Seeking Behavior

    A child who whines and complains to you about his sibling while you are on the phone is seeking attention from you. These children may tug at your shirt sleeves, talk incessantly, or constantly try to pry you from what you are doing. You may be tempted to give the child whatever he is after just to get him to leave you alone.

    The class clown is another example of a child who is desperate for attention. These kids may act out in class in an attempt to get everyone to laugh. There is often no intended harm behind such behaviors, but they are disruptive just the same.

    Deeper Needs of Attention-Seeking Behaviors and How to Address Them

    Attention-seeking behavior reveals one of two possible deeper needs within the heart. The child either needs a different kind of attention than he is currently getting, or he needs discipleship in the area of pride and self-importance.

    The first step is to make sure that you are speaking your child’s love language. You can take a quiz to find out your child’s love language here. It is important that love is communicated in the correct “currency.” You may think your words are affirming your child, but if his love language is acts of service, all the words in the world will not fill up his heart.

    If you have determined that you are speaking your child’s love language but the attention-seeking behavior persists, you can assume that the soil of their heart needs to be amended. Just like the tomatoes in my garden needed more calcium, some children who seek attention need greater humility. Philippians 2:3 instructs us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”

    Creating opportunities to develop an “other-orientation” in the hearts of such children can be very effective. You can volunteer together, rake a neighbor’s yard, engage in random acts of kindness, and strive to help them keep their eyes opened to the needs around them. A focus on the needs of others is a great antidote for a heart that is focused on self.

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  • mom talking to toddler that is crying

    2. Controlling Behavior

    You will know that you are facing controlling behavior when you begin to get a strong desire to control your child in return. You may, at times, even feel out of control.

    Examples of Controlling Behavior

    Children who refuse to comply with instructions or who complete tasks half-way are exhibiting controlling behavior. For example, you may instruct your child to take out the trash, but he waits two hours to do it. When he finally does it, the bag only makes it halfway to the curb. Or you may tell your child to stop throwing a ball in the house, only to have him look at you, smile, and throw it one more time.

    Deeper Needs of Controlling Behaviors and How to Address Them

    Controlling behavior reveals one of two possible deeper needs: a need to lead or a need to grow in the area submission.

    If your child was born wired with leadership qualities, it can often come out in “unrefined” ways in childhood. Children with a strong desire to lead often seek power and control. You can meet this deeper need by giving choices. You can ask, “Would you like to take the trash out now or in 10 minutes?” The child will feel a sense of control and the chore will be completed.

    You can also provide your child with opportunities to lead appropriately. Encourage him to direct a neighborhood play, assist a team coach or help him organize a food drive. These will all tap into that deeper need to lead, but satisfy it in a much more appropriate way.

    Sometimes controlling children have a limited understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The Christian life is one of submission. We are called to submit to God (James 4:7), authorities (Hebrews 13:17), bosses (1Peter 2:18), and one another (Ephesians 5:21).

    The best way you can teach submission to your children is by studying these Bible verses together, encouraging them when they do submit, and modeling a submissive heart to the authorities that God has placed in your own life.

    Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/photoguns

  • angry mom yelling at kid

    3. Revenge-Seeking Behavior

    Parents faced with revenge-seeking behaviors often feel hurt or threatened. Unlike, controlling children, these children do not want to dominate; they want to “get even.”

    Examples of Revenge-Seeking Behavior

    Children who seek revenge have a focus on things being fair and often try to level the playing field. For example, the day after your child was given a consequence, you may come home to find that your grandmother’s vase broken. The child may claim it was an accident, but in your heart, you know that is not the truth.

    These children may be cruel to siblings and seek to retaliate for wrongs done to them, even if it was an accident. They may shout hurtful things such as “I hate you!” or “You don’t love me!”

    Deeper Needs of Revenge-Seeking Behaviors and How to Address Them

    These behaviors reveal two possible deeper needs: a need for safety or a need for a greater understanding of the grace of God.

    Kids who seek revenge often feel vulnerable or at risk in some way. They tend to hurt others before they have a chance to be hurt. Affirming these children, even in the midst of misbehavior, can go a long way to help them feel safe and loved. You can say something like, “I don’t like that behavior, but I love you.” Children who have been victimized have a deep need to feel safe and loved. Regular reminders of how you keep them safe can help.

    These children also need a greater understanding of and experience with biblical grace. God’s grace is a gift of unmerited favor upon His beloved children. We can’t earn it. We can’t barter for it. Helping these children to understand that they are loved with no strings attached can help repair the soil of their heart out of which revengeful behavior grows.

    On occasion, you might say, “That behavior deserves a consequence, but to show you what grace is, I will give you a hug instead. You are loved no matter what.” Psalm 103:10-11 says, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.”

    The Gospel is, at its core, a message of unfairness: we do not get what we deserve. Share the Good News regularly with these kids.

    Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/LittleBee80

  • A crying kid, 39 missing children are recovered by FBI and local Georgia authorities

    4. Inadequacy-Driven Behavior

    Some kids give up before they even start. Parents of these kids often encounter feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

    Examples of Displays of Inadequacy 

    These children are often hesitant to try new things for fear of failure. They may have a love of sports but refuse to try out for the baseball team because they are convinced they will not be selected. Or they may be very bright, but put minimal effort into their school work, claiming that they will get a bad grade no matter how hard they try. (Please note: It is important to consider the possibility of underlying depression which would require professional assessment and intervention.)

    Deeper Needs of Children Who Display Inadequacy and How to Address Them

    These children have two possible deeper needs: a need to trust and be trusted and also a need to be released from the burden of fear.

    Providing these children with encouragement (which is specific and focused on the child) instead of praise (which is vague and focused on the parent) is a great way to increase self-confidence. You can say something like, “You are working so hard on that project. You must be very pleased.” You can also increase a sense of confidence by regularly demonstrating your trust in them. For example, you can ask a child who displays inadequacy to watch your purse or hold your keys.

    In 1 John 4:18, we learn, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” We can encourage these children to cast all their anxieties on God, embrace His unconditional love, and be free from the bondage of fear.

    I could have just cut off the rotten tomatoes in my garden and thrown them away. But I would not have fixed the underlying problem. The same is true in our kids. “Bad” behavior is simply a reflection of what is going on in their hearts. When we dig deep to uncover the underlying needs beneath the misbehavior, we are better able to intervene in ways that create lasting change.

    Photo Credit: ©Kat J/Unsplash

    Laura Kuehn is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in children and families. She is the founder of www.cornerstonesforparents.com, an online resource for Christian parents. Cornerstones offers parents faith-based tips on how to correct, disciple, and connect with their children. She lives in New England with her husband and two teenage children.