Ms. Behavior

Fold the napkin just so and your party will be a smash! Hug your child and their tantrum will disappear! If only it were as easy as following an etiquette book to figure out why and what to do when children misbehave, but of course, it’s not.

The root of misbehavior has many theories (genetics, age, stage, environment, peer influence, misattunement, parenting and more!) and there are just as many interventions.

With no single cause or intervention it can be difficult to know where to begin if you find yourself struggling to understand and re-direct your child. Dreikurs’ “Four Goals of Misbehavior” can be a practical starting point.

Social psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs believed that children’s misbehavior stems from their desire to be “useful”. A gentle term that places the origins of misbehavior on the child’s inability to belong and feel relevant. He believed that if children can’t achieve this through positive behavior, they act out. And the best way to know your child’s goal? Figure out how YOU feel when your child misbehaves.


1. Attention:
Parents usually feel annoyed when their child’s goal is attention.

Some children look for and maybe can’t always get attention in “useful” ways, so they seek attention through negative behaviors like interrupting, pestering, whining and clowning around. When a parent reacts, the child gets attention, but not always the kind they want or really need. All may be well until a few moments later when the cycle starts again.

Some children seek attention quietly by doing nothing and expecting to be waited on. This is called passive attention.

All children need and deserve attention and with today’s busy schedules sometimes they can get the short end of the stick. IF you feel like your child hasn’t been getting enough quality time, go ahead and make that happen. If you feel your child is making a habit out of demanding your time with negative attention, ignore their bids and instead redirect them to an activity you can both enjoy together. That way you don’t reinforce their negative bid for attention, but you still help them get their needs met.

2. Power:
Parents usually feel mad, angry or threatened when their child’s goal is power.

Some children believe that by being in charge, they can be “useful”. These children seek power. They may fight, create a scene, refuse to budge, or push back with their words by yelling things like “You can’t make me!” Sometimes these children may even resort to physical violence (i.e. hitting, and threatening others). If a parent gives in, the child has won the power struggle.

Some children seek passive power. They may do what the parent wants, but they do it slowly or sloppily.

If your child seeks power, withdraw from the power struggle by not fighting back. If you need to, explain to your child that you will discuss the issue when they are calm. Do not give in to your child’s demands; instead give your child reasonable and achievable choices. “You may go out Saturday night if your homework is complete. It is your choice. You decide.”

3. Revenge:
Parents often feel angry and hurt.

Children who lose power struggles may choose to “get even”. These children say or do hurtful things, or use non-verbal ways to communicate their feelings (i.e. staring angrily). Some parents may react to their child’s behavior and be hurtful back. This perpetuates a cycle where both child and parent are hurt and angry.

If your child seeks revenge, do not be hurtful back. Refuse to engage in the fight. Talk to your child with respect and try to remain calm. “I understand that you are angry because you want to go out with your friends, but yelling at me is not the best way to express yourself. When you are calm, we can think about a way for you to get your homework done on time.”

4. Display of Inadequacy:
When children feel like giving up, parents often feel like giving up too.

Some children quit too easily, barely even try, want to be left alone or just give up. When this happens, the child’s goal is met. The parent has agreed to expect nothing from the child. For most children this attitude happens only in specific areas, like schoolwork, sports, or social activities.

To help your child, do not pity or criticize them. Instead “lend them your confidence” by letting them know they are capable even if something is difficult. Remind them that all people struggle with certain things. Notice all your child’s efforts no matter how small. Focus on your child’s strengths and give encouragement such as, “Math may be really difficult, but I notice how hard you work at it.”

Even though parents don’t always cause a child to misbehave, our behavior can reinforce it.

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