There’s no such thing as a naughty kid

Naughty kids do not exist.

It may be a controversial opinion, but it’s one I wholeheartedly believe.

I say this as a parent of an incredibly strong-willed, painfully argumentative and possibly OCD four-year-old, whose behaviour over the last two years has run the full gamut of ‘naughty’.


Yet in my view, I don’t think it’s helpful to label a child as ‘naughty’. Instead, when we encounter kids with problematic behaviour, we have children who are either:

a) born neurologically atypical, meaning their brains process their world in a different way, which triggers unusual and sometimes bothersome behaviour, or
b) children who are not getting the nurturing, or the care and compassion, or the resources, or the support they need, to develop clear and acceptable coping habits.

For our son, it was the latter. We didn’t know how to put our frustration aside during his constant tantrums that could destroy the entire morning; his inability to compromise, in any way, shape or form; his insistence that he wears the same T’shirt over and over again, even if it’s dirty.

But he wasn’t trying to be naughty. As New Zealand psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald explains, when behaviour is an issue, there is usually a “distressed child” who acts out their distress.

“They are products of the environment they find themselves in,” he says. “They soak in the emotional environment of the family and react to that in ways that sometimes can seem surprising.”

Just as there are no naughty kids, there are no naughty parents, either. We are all, for the most part, doing the best we can.

“Life is distressing: we endure death and loss, workplace stress, financial troubles, normal parental conflict – all of these can impact children, and no one would say this is ‘abuse’ or bad parenting,” MacDonald adds.

“It’s just life. But adults have skills children don’t possess when it comes to regulating these normal stresses. It’s our job as parents to see acting out – as it’s called – for what it is: an expression of feelings that haven’t, or can’t, be put into words.”

In our situation, we eventually turned to a psychologist who suggested it was attention seeking; he’s the third child. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. She suggested ramping up the one-on-one time with either parent. We took her advice, and the turnaround in his behaviour has been marked.

We haven’t had an apoplectic meltdown in three weeks, when we were averaging three per day. Though his eldest sister is now getting sulky… Does it ever end?!