Misbehavior vs. Stress Behavior

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Today, I want to chat about something that’s been a really hot topic lately- and that’s the difference between stress behavior and misbehavior.

Misbehavior vs. Stress Behavior.

I bet you’ve never even heard of stress behavior before- give me a no in the comments if you’ve never heard of stress behavior before- it might surprise you that MOST of your child’s challenging behavior is likely to stress based. 

We pretty much always assume our children are misbehaving when they do something we don’t want them to do, right? Especially when we know they know how to do what we’ve asked and we’ve told them what exactly to do- it can absolutely baffle us when our children CONTINUE to “misbehave” and then it frustrates us, even MORE, when they say thing like “I don’t know” when we ask them why they did what they did. 

But we don’t generally acknowledge STRESS behavior. What is stress behavior?

Any situation where what they’re being asked to do outstrips their mental abilities. So it’s all well and good for you to ask them to put their shoes on- and I know I use that example a lot, but it’s because it’s SO RELATABLE… but if you ask them to put their shoes on and they just kind of dick around, then maybe look at you blankly, they aren’t MISBEHAVING… but they also aren’t doing what you’ve asked them to do. That may be because their planning and prioritizing skills are lagging, or their working memory is lagging, or their task initiation skills are weak. They know what to do, they may even be physically able to do it, but there’s a mental skills deficit that is disconnecting them from their ability to follow through. 

You CANNOT treat stress behaviour as though it’s misbehaviour. No amount of logical consequences or natural consequences are going to alter stress behaviour. You can’t discipline children out of stress behaviour. Because it’s NOT MISBEHAVIOUR. They aren’t doing it to be manipulative or give you a hard time. It’s a SKILL deficit, NOT a character flaw. 

Here’s a little trick I use to differentiate between misbehaviour and stress behaviour: If you ask a verbal child why they did what they did- why did you hit your sister, why did you throw that truck at my head, why did you stomp on your friend’s truck, why did you scream and cry when the timer went to leave preschool… whatever happened. If you ask them at a neutral time why they did what they did and they give you ANY reason- doesn’t matter how wild or illogical that reason is- then, they were misbehaving. They knew what they were doing wasn’t acceptable and they were consciously doing otherwise- because they’ve prepared an excuse. That’s when we use natural and logical consequences. 


If your child says “I don’t know”, or they just cry… that’s a surefire way to tell that what went down was stress behaviour. They weren’t consciously making a choice, they were trying to mitigate their stress as best as they knew how at that moment. Now that doesn’t mean that it was the right way to go about it- young children especially generally try to mitigate their stress in very maladaptive ways, to begin with. And it doesn’t matter if YOU think they had the right to be stressed or not. What our brains read as stress is beyond our control- what kindles out limbic system- which is the part of our brain that scans our environment for danger and sets off an alarm when it senses it- is not something we have conscious control over. So it doesn’t matter if you think they shouldn’t have been stressed- they were. Our job as their parents is to figure out what stressed them and help them mitigate that stress. Help them learn to deal with their stress in adaptive ways. 

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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