9 Reasons to Have Some Compassion for the Naughty Kid's Parents

Misbehavior doesn't always stem from bad parenting

When you see that child who is throwing rocks at the park, or there’s one kid at a birthday party who seems to get on everyone’s nerves, it’s easy to judge the parents. Perhaps you wonder why they aren’t keeping their child in line. Or maybe you assume anyone raising a child like that must be a horrible parent.

But, your assumptions about an ill-behaving child and his parents might not be accurate. There are many other reasons why the child might not be behaving. Here are nine reasons why you might want to have some compassion for the parents of the ‘naughty kid.

You Don't Know What the Child has Endured

Think twice before judging the parent of the 'naughty' child.
Annie Otzen / Moment / Getty Images

Traumatic life experiences, like a near-death car accident or a natural disaster, can greatly affect a child’s behavior. So can stressful events, like divorce, a move, or the loss of a loved one.

Those types of difficult experiences can affect a child’s development, even when they occur during infancy or during the mother’s pregnancy. So while it may look like the child is choosing to be defiant from the outside, you have no idea what is going on inside the child’s brain.

You Don't Know What the Parents Have Been Through

The parents of a naughty child may have endured some difficult experiences of their own. Parents who have lost a child may be in too much pain to appropriately discipline their other child. Or, a parent with a history of abuse may struggle to be a healthy parent to his own children.

Stressful life experiences impact the way parents interact with their kids. A single mother may have trouble finding time to spend with her children, which could contribute to their behavior problems. Or, parents who are facing homelessness may be too worried about their situation to notice their child’s misbehavior.  

Genetics Play a Role in Behavior

While the environment plays a major role in a child’s behavior, genetics may also be a major factor. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development found that factors like poor self-control and anger problems could be inherited from parents.

A 2012 study published in Psychological Science found that genetics play the biggest role in behavior problems when parents are distant. If parents aren’t playing close attention to what their children are doing, biology may take a bigger role in affecting the choices children make.

Clearly, the temperament a child is born with impacts a child’s behavior. Some kids are naturally more agreeable or timid, while others tend to be rambunctious, curious, and fearless.

The Child May Have a Mental Health Issue

Sometimes aggressive, non-compliant, and obnoxious behavior stems from a mental health issue or behavior disorderOppositional defiant disorderADHD, and conduct disorder, for example, can lead to a variety of behavior problems.

But even mental health issues, like depression or anxiety disorders, can lead to behavior problems. An anxious child may act defiant because she’s afraid to do something where she might fail. Or a depressed child may lack the energy to get his work done.

The Child May Have Developmental Delays

Just because a child is 10-years-old doesn't mean he can act like a 10-year-old. Many children have developmental delays that affect their behavior.

You can't see speech delays, cognitive problems, or autism spectrum disorders just by looking at someone. So despite a child's chronological age or size, he may not possess the maturity you might expect.

So you might see a 10-year-old throwing a temper tantrum in the airport or a 12-year-old crying in a story. It doesn't mean that they are spoiled or that their parents aren't giving them enough rules. It might be that their brains aren't as developed as you might expect and they're not yet capable of managing their behavior better. 

Different Families Have Different Rules

Remember that just because you think a child is naughty, doesn’t mean everyone thinks that. The ‘naughty' kid’s parents may think you’re too strict or they might have concerns your child is too reserved.

Every family has different rules and parents have different levels of tolerance. So while you might think someone else’s child seems obnoxious, other people might view that child’s behavior as funny.

Keep in mind that other family’s values and expectations don’t have to be better or worse than yours. Instead, they might just be different.

The Parents May Not Know What Else to Do

The parents of a misbehaving child may have tried everything already to get their child to behave. Therapy, medication, in-home services, and perhaps even residential placements may have been put in place. And the parents may be exhausted when it comes to trying new discipline strategies.

Just because your child listens when you send him to time-out doesn’t mean that will work for another child. Or just because your child seems to learn from his mistakes when you take away a privilege, doesn’t mean another child will do the same. The parents of a misbehaving child may have already tried those strategies to no avail.

There’s also a chance that a child’s behavior has improved. The parents may be willing to tolerate whining and crying because their child is no longer hitting. Or, they may be willing to put up with a little defiance as long as their child isn’t hurting himself.

The Family Likely Gets Judged by Other People Already

If a child misbehaves often, it’s likely the parents have endured their fair share of eye rolls and dirty looks from other families already. And that type of response isn’t likely to be helpful.

Sometimes, parents of misbehaving children carry around a fair amount of shame. They worry about how others perceive them and they may feel inadequate and apologetic quite often.

It isn't easy to take a misbehaving child out into public. Some parents have to do it out of necessity, however. 

They Might be Doing Their Best

Not everyone excels at parenting. But most parents are doing the best they can.

And while some families have plenty of time to coach little league and plenty of money to pay for new soccer cleats, other families are really struggling. And you might not always see those struggles.

Sometimes, people who appear to have a life together on the outside may be experiencing a lot of pain on the inside. And quite often, a child’s behavior is a symptom of a deeper problem going on within the family.

How to Show Compassion

Rather than add to their stress with a disapproving look, a smile or a nod could go a lot further. If the parents look like they're doing their best, a kind word might even be in order.

Saying, "You're doing a great job," could give a distraught parent the encouragement she needs to get through the day. Or, simply saying, "It'll get better," might give a frustrated parent a little bit of hope.

If you know the family well enough, an offer to babysit for a couple of hours. A request for a play date might be greatly appreciated as well.

But remember, just because another child is ill-behaved, doesn't mean the parents or the child are bad people.


Dick DM, Meyers JL, Latendresse SJ, et al. CHRM2, Parental Monitoring, and Adolescent Externalizing Behavior: Evidence for Gene-Environment InteractionPsychological Science. 2011;22(4):481-489. doi:10.1177/0956797611403318.

Lipscomb ST, Laurent H, Neiderhiser JM, et al. Genetic vulnerability interacts with parenting and early care and education to predict increasing externalizing behaviorInternational Journal of Behavioral Development. 2013;38(1):70-80. doi:10.1177/0165025413508708.

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