Some children engage in destructive behavior out of a need for attention.

Characteristics of Destructive Behavior in Children

by Damon Verial

Unless you remember your child spanking the doctor in return, your child was not born destructive. Destructive behaviors can come from a poor environment but also often result from a lack of proper parenting. By understanding the risk factors for destructive behavior, a parent can adequately address and correct the problem.

1. The Basic Characteristics of Destructive Behavior

Children who display destructive behavior often use it as a strategy that helps them attain something that's missing in their lives. A child who constantly breaks his classmates' toys and writes on walls might be doing so as a vie for attention. Sometimes, destructive behavior is used as a strategy to avoid undesirable activities. Children often break things hoping that doing so will allow them to get out of using that item or a family event. For example, a child might purposely break his pencils to avoid doing homework or destroy a parent's object, hoping to anger his parent and get sent to time out, thereby avoiding the dreaded trip to Grandma's. But not all destructive characteristics are alike: Sometimes children rebel just to exhibit their autonomy and ability to make their own decisions. Destructive behavior is highly situational.

2. Examples of Destructive Behavior

Children who lack a sense of self-efficacy often feel out of control in their homes. To gain a sense of power, they might take control of people or objects, especially outside of the home. Thus, bullies or children who show destructive behavior toward objects might be lacking sufficient independence in the home, indicating overbearing parents. A child who doesn’t get adequate attention in the home might draw attention to himself by destroying objects and property. For a neglected child, even negative attention is preferable to no attention at all. As children tend to take their parents as role models, destructive children without proper role models might be engaging in destruction because they have witnessed it in their parents’ behavior. Alternatively, children might take up non-parental role models, such as disobedient peers. In this case, destructive behavior might be a modeling of others’ behaviors.

3. Factors Leading to Destructive Behavior

Both the environment and parental influence affect a child's behavior, implying that much of the destructive behavior in children stem from poor environments and parenting. Researchers on disruptive behavior, such as SAMHSA, a research group on substance abuse and mental health, have found a number of hard-to-control risk factors that can lead to behavior problems in childhood. Such risk factors include poverty, exposure to violence in the media, a lack of interest toward school and high-impact life transitions, such as witnessing a death in the family or a divorce. But because a parent cannot always control such factors, it’s her responsibility to avoid exacerbating the situation. It is usually a lack of parenting more than inappropriate parenting that causes destructive behavior. Children need an adequate sense of self-efficacy, plentiful attention and good role models. Parents who do not satisfy these needs of their children's are essentially sending their children elsewhere to get them, which can result in destructive behavior.

4. Correcting Destructive Behavior

Continued destructive behavior can also indicate a lack of limits. As a parent, you have the responsibility of making the limits clear to your child. Define what behaviors are wrong and why they are wrong. After explaining this, help your child come up with alternative actions. In this process, you not only make your expectations clear, thereby showing your child action have limits, but also teach your child the value of respecting property, reducing the chance that he continues with such misbehavior.

Photo Credits

  • Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Getty Images