Why Kids Misbehave

Goals of Misbehavior 

Rudolph Dreikurs proposed that children misbehave out of a mistaken assumption that they can gain social status with their own bad behavior. 

Dreikurs described four goals of misbehavior: 

  1. To gain attention. 
  2. To gain power and control. 
  3. To gain revenge. 
  4. To display feelings of inadequacy. 

Children often feel that they are not getting the recognition they deserve. This is normal and even productive; it stimulates their desire for communication and their awareness of self. Ordinarily, children get the attention they need with their good deeds. Sometimes, children mistakenly believe that they can get that same attention (the first goal of misbehavior) with bad behavior. Often, it works! When children feel like they don’t belong, they misbehave as a way to gain social status. When gaining attention doesn’t work, they move to the next goal, to gain power and control. 

When gaining power over others to feel better about themselves doesn’t work, they become angry and want to retaliate for what they perceive as the bad behavior of others. This is the goal of revenge. 

Finally, when all has failed to help the child feel important to their community (family, class in school, religious community, neighborhood), they feel defeated. Children who have given up perceive that there is nothing they can do to feel important, and their behavior reflects this perception of inadequacy. 

What You Can Do 

Gaining attention: If you feel annoyed, the child’s goal is probably to gain attention. Ignore the attention-seeking behavior and help your child feel loved by noticing positive behavior when it happens, or distract your child from the attention-seeking behavior with alternative actions or choices: “Could you come over here and help me with this?”

Gaining power and control: If you feel beaten or intimidated, the child’s goal is likely to gain power and control. Don’t take the bait! The second you engage in a battle for power, you’ve lost. A child who learns how to gain power with bad behavior will continue until you give up in frustration. 

Revenge: If you feel hurt, the child may be seeking revenge. A child who seeks revenge is really hoping to find love. Their vengeful behavior shows that they feel so misunderstood and hurt that they lash out, hoping to make others to feel what they feel. Respond with affection and caring. “I really care about you and I didn’t raise you to be vengeful. That’s why I have asked you to go to your room now until you can treat us better.” Don’t engage in the power struggle, remove the audience (siblings, friends, etc) and insist on a logical consequence. 

Inadequacy and helplessness: If you feel incapable, the child may be trying to achieve inadequacy and helplessness. This is the child who has given up. Misbehavior takes the form of not doing rather than doing: not doing homework, not cooperating, not participating in the family, and so forth. Help this child to find small successes, believe that failure is acceptable, recognize achievement, and memorize the phrase “tell me more.” Remember, showing interest will help almost any bad situation. 

All of the above situations involve children who have become discouraged. Help them find encouragement in their day to day lives. Also, be mindful of the subtle ways in which you have become discouraged. 

Adult FeelingsChild’s BehaviorAppropriate Response
Tired  Annoyed 
Attention-seeking 
Affirm the positive things your child does  Give attention to good behavior  Distract with alternative choices and activities 
Emotionally beaten  Intimidated  Angry 
Power-seeking 
Don’t engage in a power-struggle  Use phrases such as “I understand you want…, but that’s not possible right now”  Stay calm 
Hurt
Sad 
Revenge-seeking Respond with affection and caring  Remove others from the situation and insist on a logical consequence 
Incapable  Helpless Inadequacy and helplessnessShow the child you care for them and believe in them  Help the child find small successes  Recognize achievements  Ask them how they are feeling, and use the phrase “tell me more” 

Reprinted with permission. Find the original article at Making Child Therapy Work: Why Do Children Misbehave? http://robinwalker.hypermart.net/makingchildtherapywork/why_do_children_misbehave.html 

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