This question rumbled around in the back of my head for some time. The first time it really struck me was in the early winter of 2003. I was out walking my dog the morning after a sharp drop in temperature. The night before it had rained, and there were some frozen puddles on the sidewalk. I was looking at these frozen puddles, when the child inside me had the impulse to step on them and hear that wonderful crackling sound. It was then that I stopped to consider, what was it that makes that fun? I realized it was the little boy version of myself who wanted to do that (which I did eventually indulge). Furthermore, it was the thrill of breaking something, an activity that little children relish, which was being sublimated. Somewhere inside many of us, including kids, is that primitive childish impulse, but why?

So there was the question. Why is it ‘fun’ for kids to destroy and break things? It took me some time to discover an answer that was satisfying. The best theory I could think of was that it boils down to power. Many kids desire a sense of autonomy and independence. A kid wants to feel like his own separate individual, and this desire is even stronger for teens.[i] Unfortunately for him, he is not in charge (usually). In fact, reminders that others have power over him surround him. He spends all day being told what to do, how much to do it, and when to stop doing what he wants to do. This presents a sense of imbalance. The desire for power is contradicted by the lack of it. To set right this imbalance, he seeks out opportunities to feel independent and powerful, in other words, to have control. Destroying and breaking things is a primitive version of this impulse. That is the ultimate power over an object. His action makes that object cease to exist and causes its destruction. That is raw power.

I eventually found a similar idea expressed very well in a Calvin and Hobbes Comic by Bill Watterson:

In this strip, Calvin walks around, looking up first at his father, then at his mother. Calvin feels very small and powerless. To soothe this disquieting feeling, he goes outside and builds himself a very, very short snowman, which he can tower over. Now he is not the shortest (or least powerful) anymore, and he lets the snowman know it!

There are many other ways that a kid may seek to feel that sense of power that the world robs him of. Sometimes it is by pushing around others (often younger siblings or weaker peers). He may find ways to disrupt and disobey authorities, essentially hijacking their power. Some kids express this need to be greater than others through forms of competition, such as in sports or social hierarchy. Others resort to putting down peers with sarcasm. In extreme cases, he may even resort to actual cruelty to weaker beings.

All of these behaviors can be expressions of the same core desire to feel in control, to feel ‘bigger’ than someone or something. Therefore, when any of these actions becomes disruptive or problematic, they may be solved by similar means. If an unwanted behavior stems from a desire to feel powerful, then parents can provide that sense through more appropriate means. If you don’t choose where they can have it (i.e. if you deny them of it completely) then they will (by seizing it where they choose). So by giving them more direct control of certain aspects of their lives (their room, their homework, etc), then they are less likely to attempt to find it through more inappropriate means. You’d be amazed how some kids enjoy having some ability to make their own choices and preferences, or have some responsibilities that are theirs alone to do with as they see fit. This includes the freedom to make mistakes without you stepping in.

But to do this you must be willing to live with their choices, and their consequences. Kids learn by repetition. They will repeat the same behaviors and experience the same consequences over and over. This does not make them stubborn and does not mean they did not hear you the last time.

Imagine how hard it is for you to try to change a bad habit, even one that you know is bad for you. Behavior is difficult to change (or my job would be a lot easier!) The neurology and associations are lined up to support the old pattern, (meaning you associate A with doing B, even if B gets you in trouble, and it takes a lot of self restraint to resist B and do C instead). If you step out of your routines and bad habits, and repeatedly make the conscious effort to change your patterns of behavior, you can actually alter your neural network, and therefore alter your associations and reactions in the future.[ii] And you, as an adult, are more capable of changing than your kid.

But if they repeat the same behavior over and over, repeatedly and consistently experiencing the consequences, they begin to recognize the pattern afterward. With each repetition, he will recognize it sooner in the process. Until finally he sees it BEFORE he does it, and yet does it anyways… slowly the new behavior patterns emerges. And then MAYBE he’ll choose different the next time.

My advice is to be patient, and don’t be surprised if you find him in this moment again, and again. The best attitude you can have when he is upset is a combination of empathy, and naming the pattern so he sees how he got there, but with detachment from whether he will apply that wisdom the next time. That is how they grow from child to adult.


[i] According basic developmental theory, developmental stages are marked by coping with universal psychosocial crises that expand on previous development, as well as outside influences (such as parents) and physical development. According to Erik Erikson, adolescence is marked by a crisis of identity vs. role confusion. A Teen typically struggles with social interactions and grapples with moral issues as he tries to figure out who he is and where he is going. A teen will explore new roles and identify with new ideas in an effort to discover who he is as an individual, separate from his family of origin and as a member of a wider society. He will experiment with different identities and sub-cultures. He will be drawn toward absolute ideals, which are conflict-free, and have difficulty tolerating the ambiguity and paradoxes of reality. Unfortunately for his parents, in this process he is likely to go into a period of withdrawing from past commitments, associations, and responsibilities. Erikson referred to this withdrawing as a “psychological moratorium.” In this period, peer relationships tend to dominate.

If this process is unsuccessful, the teen is at risk for perpetual role confusion, premature and unexplored identities, temporary over-identification with popular heroes or ideologies, and socially deviant identities. Eventually, if a teen can navigate this process, he can develop a firm and committed sense of fidelity despite “the inevitable contradictions of value systems” Erikson, Erik H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd Ed.). New York: Norton.


[ii] Begley, Sharon. (2007, July 2-9). When does your brain stop making new neurons? Newsweek. 62-65.


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