Search icon


31st Mar 2015

Psychologist David Carey Explains The 4 Most Common Reasons Our Kids Throw Tantrums

"All human life is movement towards a goal"

David carey

Why do they act this way? Why do they do the things they do? These are among the most common questions parents ask about their children.

Although they are interesting questions, they lead us in the wrong direction for an answer. There is a better question we can ask and the answer to each one will bring us not only closer to a better understanding of children but closer to better ways of directing their behaviour…

What is the purpose of my child’s behaviour?

All human behaviour has an underlying purpose. All human life is movement towards a goal. Once we realise that our children’s behaviour has a purpose and that it is moving towards some sort of goal, we can better understand them. It is important to recognise that all children’s behaviour is an attempt to communicate with their parents. The most basic communication is about whether or not the child believes their basic need is being met.

The basic needs of all children are to feel loved, accepted, cherished and needed by their parents. If a child feels this need is being met they will behave much better than if they do not.

Sometimes children come to believe that these needs are not being met. This may not be the case in actuality, but it is their belief that will guide their behaviour. Let’s take a look at the four most common goals of children’s misbehaviour in order to more fully understand this dynamic:

The goal for attention

The craving for parental attention is so basic that a child will stop at nothing to get it. A child who comes to believe they are loved and respected only if they are being noticed or being served is a child who craves attention. Attention for positive behaviour is not always received. When it isn’t, a child will try to have the attention goal met by misbehaving. When a child seeks attention through misbehaviour, the parent feels annoyed and tends to remind the child of proper behaviour. This usually is met with a short-term turn towards more positive behaviour. If positive behaviour is not noticed then there is a quick retreat to misbehaviour to get attention once again.

The goal of power

A child who craves power has come to believe they are only valued when they dominate family life. Their inner belief is along the lines of “I can prove you can’t boss me around.” This goal most often induces in the parent an attempt to prove to the child that the parent is, in fact the boss. The parent usually begins to order the child to do this or that and sometimes reverts to threats of punishment. In other words, the parents think “I’ll show you who’s in charge around here!” This cycle of child power attempts and parental power in return usually only intensifies the struggle for power in the child. In the end, it is most often the child who wins. After all, they have more time and more energy than the parents.

The goal of revenge

A child who feels hurt, shamed and wounded will eventually seek revenge on the person they believe hurt them. The child develops an inner belief system along the lines of “I want to hurt others as I myself have been hurt.” When a child’s misbehaviour is a result of this belief the parent often feels angry, hurt and a sense of disbelief. The parent thinks, “How could you do this to me?” As the child wants to get even and seeks to make themselves likeable in the process, the parent begins to feel disempowered. The sense of disbelief in the parent usually results in an inability to correct the child’s behaviour.

The goal of inadequacy

Sometimes children feel as though there is no use in trying to be good. They become passive and withdrawn. They stop interacting in family life and retreat to an inner world of fantasy. These are children who think to themselves, “I can’t do anything right so I won’t do anything at all.” These children believe they are no good. Parents typically feel a great sense of pity and despair for the child and do not know what to do. The goal of inadequacy is often played out both at home and in the classroom. Children stop striving to learn new things and often give up easily.

So, now what?

We have reviewed the four most common goals of children’s misbehaviour, looked at the fact that all children’s behaviour is an attempt to communicate, and discussed that all life is movement towards some inner goal. This inner goal is often not known to the child. It’s our responsibility to help the child feel more valued and behave more positively. How do we do this? Watch this space for the next article on

David Carey, our resident child psychologist, has over 25 years experience in both clinical and educational settings. The author of several books, he’s also a regular contributor to the Moncrieff show on Newstalk 106-108FM and on TV3.