How to Deal with a Child's Destructive Behavior

Updated November 27, 2017

Because it is wasteful, unnecessary, and often costly, destructive habits arouse despair in the hearts of many parents. There are to main classifications of children who destroy things: those who do it innocently or unintentionally and those who do it deliberately with malice.

Fortunately, the first classification is much more common and parents who realize the distinction between the two groups, and seek out the underlying causes, are usually able to redirect their children’s activities and help forestall the more serious problem of malicious destructiveness. Let’s take a look first of all at the “innocent” types.

Here is the bouncing baby who has no respect for anything around the house, be it an expensive vase or a small mirror. For the baby, the desire to taste, feel, and examine is all-important and a loud “No!” have little effect. Fill the needs of this child with toys that come apart such as Lego or and toys that can be shaped such as Play Doh in which to dabble. Make sure that the valuables are well out of reach, as well as anything that can hurt the child. It helps to give the child a place in the house to play.

Usually older and more orderly in his destructiveness, this child will dismantle a watch, unscrew door knobs and tear papers into tiny shreds, then, more than likely, try to reassemble the bits and pieces. The material, the way it’s put together, whether it will crack, splinter, or shatter, are what interests him.

A four- or five-year-old who destroys things not his own should be helped to fix up what has been damaged, but without scolding. Giving him proper play materials will help satisfy his inquisitive nature …old watches, broken dolls, odds and ends for his fix-it box, reading material that explains how things are made, what makes them work, and so on.

There is the clumsy child. He touches an article and it breaks; he bumps into things, knocks them over and demolishes them without seeming regard. Help is what he needs, not scolding. A doctor may advise about his coordination, sight and hearing. Often it’s just slowness in development calling for patience and understanding in helping the child develop the knack of handling things.

He doesn’t know his own strength. Whether the child is two or twelve, he or she needs special handling. Broken couch springs, trampled garden flowers, flattened pen nibs, bear witness to his muscular vigor. Such children should be protected against themselves. Enforce rules consistently—No “wrestling in the kitchen” or “bouncing on the beds” or “touching dad’s or mom’s desk.”

Constant reminders may be necessary and, what is more important, plenty of alternatives. For the under six, give him heavy blocks, boxes, boards, climbing apparatus, and swings for “muscle play,” and so on. The older child should have opportunities for rough and tumble sports. With such outlets for their abundant energies, super activities in the house can be more readily curbed.

While most children’s destructive acts fall into the four categories already discussed, there are two additional classifications which are met with, and which require more serious consideration because they are the sources of deliberate and malicious destruction.

Breaking windows, raiding a house under construction, and many other forms of vandalisms by neighborhood gangs are only too well known. Destruction is usually not the main purpose, however. High spirits, nothing better to do, and the deep desire of every child at a certain age to be part of a rebellious group usually lie behind the devastation. Most parents of children from 10 to 15 years of age get a taste of this group destruction.

The reasons for this behavior are not hard to find. The child doesn’t want to be considered soft; he wants to be accepted by the others so he joins with them in activities he would never dream of doing on his own. Lessons in property value, the rights of other people, sharing the cost of the damages (out of his allowance) will help cut down on this kind of destructive attitude.

When there is an undue amount of such trouble in the neighborhood, parents would do well to examine the situation regarding their children’s spare time. Talking it over with a recreation leader, scoutmaster, or sports coach helps. Destructive gangs can become constructive groups with proper guidance.

If the gang activity is a minor issue, however, some good antidotes to group destruction lie in trips to factories to tie in with the training in the value of money and property; even trips to the police station to bring out the problem of community protection. If possible, take some of the gang along with your own child (but don’t reveal your real purpose).

Finally, there is the child who destroys for the sake of destroying – deliberate and calculating. The kind that sets fire to curtains, floods the bathroom, or smashes some valuable object – with malicious intent. Also included here is the child who gets pleasure out of destroying the play of other children.

Something has gone wrong in this child’s growing up and unless handled with skill and deep understanding, his attitude can settles into a persistent defiance and destructiveness.

Parents often need professional help (family doctor or counselor) to learn the cause for the destructiveness itself is but a symptom, like losing the temper or excessive thumbs sucking. Taking matches away from the child who starts fires is but a temporary precaution; the underlying motives should be learned and dealt with. It is usually rather difficult; if not impossible, for the parent to determine the reason behind such behavior—that’s why outside expert help is advisable in most of these cases.

Since it’s easier to be destructive than constructive, easier to be messy, careless, and clumsy rather than neat, careful, and controlled, it’s no wonder that children slip into the habits of destructiveness. But it helps to take heart in knowing that they also learn and unlearn quickly and readily, particularly when their stage of development is taken into consideration. With the knowledge of what can and can’t be done at certain ages, parents can usually help the child’s natural development toward improvement—and that includes winning out over the various types of destructiveness.