There is NO Misbehavior

A New Way of Seeing our Children’s Emotionally-Triggered Actions

Mis + Behavior

Here’s something with which all parents everywhere have to deal. Just for signing up as a parent, we’ll have to face this little concept. We’ll be asked to pick sides, to align ourselves with certain strategies, and to commit ourselves fully to waging all-out war. We’ll be told we have no choice.  That anything else would be, well – permissiveness.

But we’ve made a huge imaginary Mis + Take…

The word “misbehavior” means: “an improper, inappropriate, or bad manner of acting”, and of course this means in terms of social norms, family rules, etc.. In use, though, it’s commonly applied to any action that we grown-ups don’t like, and never fails to imply some nefarious intent on the part of the “misbehaver”. The truth is, however, that children (especially young ones) who are experiencing powerful emotions aren’t choosing actions -- they’re compelled by their feelings to act in ways that they can’t regulate. They aren’t misbehaving. They’re doing exactly as their biology intends. And whether we like it or not, it couldn’t be more appropriate for where they are developmentally and what they are experiencing physio-emotionally.

The Safety System or Ain’t Misbehavin’

When children experience intense emotion, they lose contact with the executive part of the brain. That means, just like someone with Alzheimer’s can’t access the brain machinery for memories, so too, an upset child can’t access the brain machinery for thinking clearly, or acting carefully. When emotion strikes, that emotion has to be dealt with first in order for the executive brain, which controls thinking and motor impulses (among a host of other higher functions), to come back online. This happens in one or more of three ways:

1.     Like every healthy mammal, the child calls out for help and receives the empathetic support that she needs in order to let out the emotion, and/or get other needs met, and then returns to a calm state and higher-brain function.

2.     The child’s nervous system obliges her body to some action to discharge the intensity of the uncomfortable feeling. Her brain is on it’s way to reverting to a survival state, and punching her sister is a tiny release, a minor, incremental improvement over the jealousy and powerlessness, etc., she was feeling just before.

3.     The child stuffs the feeling and tries to move on, though encumbered more and more by accumulating, painful feelings; until 1. and/or 2. above happens.

What we’ve been trained to call “misbehavior” is actually a neural survival mechanism…

When our kids cry for help, it’s easier to see, but we’d do well to become skilled at recognizing the call for assistance in their disagreeable actions as well. Their brains are driving them to do something to which we’ll attend, so that they can get the emotional support they need in order to return to higher functionality. And what’s more -- they can’t stop it without our help because their impulse control is in the executive brain where they’ve lost access. It’s honestly unrealistic for us to expect that they’d be able to act in any other way! They’re doing exactly as is normal and best for the human brain. Period. And if we want to help them “act right” and “make good choices” then we have to help them get “back in their right minds”.

When children are behaving in ways that don’t fit in with the herd, it’s actually a very fortunate signal that there’s something wrong with how they feel. And if there’s something wrong with how they feel, it’s usually a sign that they have a need that is going unmet. So the next time your kid “acts up” you can thank him for being so clear with you!


                                                                     Emotional Anatomy Chart from Feeleez

                                                                     Emotional Anatomy Chart from Feeleez

Working in Reverse

Fortunately, this system is a two-way street. We can have a massive effect on how our kids act simply by how we attend to their feelings and their needs.

When a child is engaged in an activity that we would normally call misbehavior, we have an enormous opportunity before us…

 Instead of just punishing or guilt-tripping our way into smoldering, temporary compliance, we can turn this rift in the family joy into a boon for the relationship and invite our children to a whole range of other more agreeable types of actions, just by being with them in empathy. Here’s a few ideas to start:

1.     Respond to the signal for help – recognizing that our children are being forced to “act up” and can’t “put on the breaks”; and recognizing their suffering and need for assistance.

2.     Get curious – instead of trying to hammer in a lesson on etiquette (for which the higher brain is necessary to hear and remember), we can look under the surface of the behavior for the uncomfortable feeling(s) driving it; and find out if there is an(other) unmet need associated with it. Ask, “What’s going on for you, love? Are you upset?” and wait and listen. Remember that when we parents feel disrespected (or saddened, or enraged) by the behavior, that’s a good indication of what feeling it is discharging for the child, too.

3.     Assist children with the feelings involved and struggling to get out – they need our help to let out those big emotions and calm down and “think straight” again. The shortest distance between our children’s disagreeable actions and ones we’d rather see is through the co-managed off-loading of their painful feelings. Be with them in empathy in whatever manner(s) they like best for solely the feelings piece. And wait.

4.     Then if there is an(other) unmet need fueling the uncomfortable emotion, we can help meet that as well. Look for a need to meet in every action that annoys, and find a more agreeable way to meet it. We can almost always find ways to meet our children’s needs in a manner that works for us as well, but if for some reason we can’t, then it’s a clear indicator that our work right then lies in assisting with the feelings associated with that disappointment instead – remaining firm while focusing on being kind.

This process restores family peace, reaffirms the parent-child bond, and makes way for more ideal actions and better, higher-brain choices to follow. Every time.


Now, don’t get hung up on whether or not to “give in” to your child’s ill-conceived or worse controlled plans to have his or her needs met…


Assisting with feelings and meeting needs is separate from condoning actions. We can do all of the above, and then when they can hear us, still talk about what we’d prefer they do in the future. And because of how we’ve handled them, we’ve made it easier and more attractive for them to handle us with empathy, too. And when it comes right down to it, that’s all we hope to teach them about how to “behave” anyway! Once we translate “misbehavior” as “having feelings and trying to get needs met” then we can see, we don’t have to wage war on what they do, we just have to meet them where they are.


Be well.


Feel overwhelmed by parenting tips, advice, and admonitions???

Sometimes all the information out there about "doing it right" can be too much to absorb, let alone implement. Here's a shortcut:

When in doubt, choose the RELATIONSHIP. Any choice that brings you and your child more connection is the right one.

When all is said and done the strength of your relationship is what carries you through any rough patches. Let your connection be your main motivation and everything gets better and better.

Image credit: Feeleez Matching Game

The Praise Quandary

When your child is behaving in a pleasing way do you feel like praising the heavens? Do you feel like praising him?

Although this is a very natural response it's one we need to think about carefully. Reward, including verbal praise, is an EXTRINSIC motivator. And it turns out that this type of motivation eventually backfires.

In other words, praising your child for waiting patiently just might discourage your child from waiting patiently next time! Oh no!

Would you like your child to keep up that particular pleasing behavior? 

Instead of praising him, which erodes cooperation over time, share with him your appreciation and how his actions are beneficial to others.

"You are sitting so patiently and so quietly. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. When you wait like that I can really concentrate and get this job done quickly."

Helping others feels good and that feeling provides the INTRINSIC MOTIVATION to repeat the helpful action.

CAUTION: Kids have "falseness radar"! Be as genuine as you can in your appreciation. Be specific as to why and how their help is beneficial.

Image credit: Feeleez Poster

Not the Teen Years Already!!

Are you already seeing TEEN-like behavior in your child? Does that have you worrying about the coming years?

The teen years can feel daunting. Want to set yourself up for success? Start now! A successful teen-parent relationship hinges entirely on connection. Build it up now by:

-playing and laughing
-providing touch by wrestling and hugging
-showing curiosity with non-judgmental questions
-modeling respect with your words and actions
-empathizing with all feelings (good and bad)
-spending non-stressful time together
-being totally and utterly trustworthy

Bonus: Everyone starts feeling good now! Preparation for the teen years is a win for your present AND future family life.

Image credit: Feeleez ABCS

Empathy Does Not Equal Agreement!

Is your child ever upset about something that makes NO SENSE???

It's incredibly hard to have empathy for a child when we COMPLETELY DISAGREE with what they are saying.

The good news? Empathy does NOT = agreement! Empathy means to feel the feelings of another, not to justify or corroborate.

Example: Child: "Why did they have to say that, like I'm the stupidest person in the world?! They're stupid, not me."

Parent: "You didn't like how your friends said that. Darn. Are you mad about it or sad?"

We can recognize the feelings without agreeing with the description.


Image credit: Feeleez ABCS

Get Me Dad!

What's up with WRESTLING? Why are kids crazy about it? Why do they want to do it even if a wrestle session often ends in tears???

Here's why: the very best way for kids to release emotions that have built up over the course of the day is to LAUGH or CRY. A wrestle session with a tuned-in, enthusiastic parent often provides BOTH.

So next time your kid is getting rowdy right before bed, challenge them to a match! They'll LAUGH their heads off, and when they inevitably go too far and end up in tears they can CRY in your arms. With a heart cleared of all those tough emotions sleep will come easily.

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs


Does anything feel worse than the droopy, sad, and scared look your child takes on after you YELL at them?

It's so awful.

All parents, at some point or another, yell. It isn't our top choice. It isn't how we'd like to handle any situation, no matter how tough. It doesn't even work to change behavior, it only works to damage our relationship frown emoticon

But it still happens.

What to do?

1. Clear out any stored emotions by recognizing them and naming them- Making yourself less likely to BLOW.

2. When you do yell, admit your wrongdoing without excuses. "Honey, I'm so sorry I yelled at you. That is not how I want to communicate. I'm sorry it was scary. I made a mistake."

3. Repair the relationship by re-establishing connection: Eye contact, touch, and empathy.

4. Forgive yourself.


Image credit: Feeleez ABCs

Don't Leave!

Does your child sob when you leave them? Do you reassure them that you'll "be right back"? Are they still upset?

As it turns out rational thinking is a higher brain function and when kids are heart-broken at your departure this function is unavailable to them. 

Empathy is your friend in this instance and every other instance of upset! "You're sad I'm leaving huh? Darn. That doesn't feel good." Some time and a good snuggle will send the empathy home. 

You'll still walk out the door and you'll leave a much better-feeling child behind. 

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs


Gratitude. Ooh baby, this is probably the feeling we want our children to express more than any other.

Have you heard of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? When we prompt our kids to say thank you we are using extrinsic motivation. They say thank you because they are trying to please us, or stay out of trouble. When they come to gratitude on their own and say thank you without prompting, they are using intrinsic motivation. They are saying it because they feel it and because saying so feels good to them.

Science tells us that for long term behavior repetition, intrinsic beats extrinsic HANDS DOWN. In fact, the use of extrinsic motivation actually makes it less likely that a child will repeat the behavior over time!

So what to do?

1. Model gratitude. Say thank you every chance you get. 
2. Stop forcing and prompting thank yous. 
3. Stop praising the use of thank yous. (Rewards are extrinsic motivators!)
4. Trust. Your child is actually grateful and if given a chance will demonstrate that in their own way, on their own schedule.

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs


Is this what your child looks like when you ask him how he's feeling? Do you always get the same answer, a rote "Fine", even when you can tell there is something more going on?

Here are two crucial elements for growing your child's emotional intelligence:

1. Safety. If your child doesn't feel safe from judgement he won't open up. Be sure to be neutral about ALL FEELINGS- the good, the bad, the ugly.

2. Modeling. Talk about your own feelings throughout the day! How do you feel about the traffic? The spring buds? The cat barf? Make "emotional talk" the norm.

Do these two things and watch your boy, or girl, unfold. Find out what is inside that beautiful little heart.

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs

My Belly Hurts

Does your child complain of a bellyache even when it doesn't seem to be true, like they are just making it up?

They probably are. Not because they are "lying" but because parents often respond with care and connection when their child is physically suffering. It just may be the case that your child is feeling NERVOUS or SCARED or GUILTY or WORRIED or SAD and a bellyache is the surest way to get the love they need so much.

Short story? Let the reason for their discomfort be "true", see it for what it really is: a cry for connection. Be thankful they've found an avenue to relief. Eventually, as they trust you to hold all of their feelings sacred, not just the physical ones, they won't need to find an excuse to get connection.

Happy ending.

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs

Rush No More

Did you know that fine motor skills are an upper brain function? Did you know that when we hurry our kids it is stressful and signals their brains to shift processing to the lower brain? So when it's time to hustle and we rush our kids while asking them to put on their shoes they often look like the boy in this illustration.

It's so inconvenient!

As it turns out empathy, connection, and touch are the quickest way back to upper brain functions. So even though it feels like you don't have time for it a hug just might save the day!

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs


Is this your kid? Bouncing off the walls when they should be doing something else?

It's so tempting to go into CONTROL MODE, doling out threats to get them to calm down and focus. So often the more tight and tense we get the wilder they become!

Luckily empathy works to mellow out even higher-end feelings. Even when kids are expressing crazy excitement what they are truly seeking is connection. So try out empathy for times like these: "Wow! Are you super excited?? Woo hoo! Alright!!"

Recognize their emotional experience and it will shift, whether they are sad or manic, every time.

Bonus feature: You don't act like a jerk. The result is a stronger relationship with continued benefits into the future.

Image credit: Feeleez Poster

Upset as Opportunity

Did you know that empathy is contagious?

Any empathy you offer your child directly affects your own brain chemistry as well as the brain chemistry of anyone in the vicinity.

So when your kid freaks out at the grocery store and you start to panic and everyone around you seems to be suffering as well, remember the CONTAGION EFFECT. As soon as you offer empathy your child will start to feel better (and quiet down) AND you will start to feel better (and calm down) AND those onlookers will feel better (even smile!).

When this happens it feels like magic, but it's actually chemistry. Humans are amazing.

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs

Everyone Is a Teacher

Did you always imagine raising a child that would reach out to others? One that would perhaps notice another child on the playground that was feeling lonely and befriend her?

That sought-after quality is called EMPATHY and the best way to teach it is to employ it yourself.

This means stopping yourself from trying to explain your child's feelings away (i.e.: "No need to worry honey, we'll get you a new one.") or coerce them into feeling better (i.e.: "Why don't you stop crying so we can talk about it."). Employing empathy means you simply recognize the feeling and allow it to be (i.e.: "You're feeling worried and sad about that huh?").

Each time you do this you make it not only possible but LIKELY that your child will recognize the feelings of others.

It's a win win!

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs

Not a Goose

Feeling silly is fun!

Sometimes parents join in and celebrate by tossing out playful names like: "You silly goose!" This is all in good fun, but in the interest of emotional safety (and the HUGE benefits of said safety) perhaps it would be better to celebrate without any labels. This makes it clear that not even subtle playful judgement is placed on feelings, that all are ok and none define who you are. 

Instead: "You feeling silly?! WOO HOOOO!!!"

Image credit: Feeleez Matching Game

No Right to Embarrass

Kids, just like grownups, have pride. Even if they are breaking a rule or "not listening", it doesn't mean they are immune to the humiliating effects of a public correction.

Always remember to pull them aside for a private discussion when they need re-direction. Better yet, insert a big dose of CONNECTION before private correction.

Embarrassment never feels good.

Image credit: Feeleez ABCs


This Feeleez illustration is beloved by the 1-3yr old set. They like to narrate the injury, the crying, the potential bandaid and hug from mama or papa. It's straightforward; child suffers, child gets love and tenderness.

Here at the Center for Emotional Education we think every scenario- every outburst, meltdown, or infraction can first be triaged with love and tenderness. A child that is acting out is suffering and needs an "emotional bandaid" as much as one who has scraped an elbow.

When kids feel better, they do better.

Image credit: Feeleez matching game.