Understanding the Language Of Misbehavior: What Your Child Is Really Trying To Tell You.

Understanding the Language Of Misbehavior: What Your Child Is Really Trying To Tell You.


According to Rudolf Dreikurs, a prominent psychiatrist, children’s misbehavior can be classified into four broad categories or ‘goals’, as he likes to refer to them. Dreikurs believes that the misbehavior is achieving something for the child. So, if you are able to determine the function of the behavior, you can replace an inappropriate behavior with an appropriate one. The four goals of misbehavior are: attention, power, revenge, and display of inadequacy. The way you can determine which goal your child is acting upon is by identifying how you, as the parent, feel.

A child who is seeking attention believes that “I only belong when I am being noticed and serviced.” When a parent is faced with this behavior, they feel annoyed. Their reaction is typically to remind and coax the child to change their behavior. This approach temporarily stops the misbehavior; however, later it resumes as the same behavior, or he or she disturbs in another way. An alternative technique is to ignore the misbehavior and give attention to positive behavior instead.

Seeking power is the goal of misbehavior when the child feels “I only belong when I am in control, the boss, or when I am proving that no one can boss me.” Faced with this misbehavior, the parent feels angry and provoked, as if their authority is being tested. Here is where we see power struggles. Or, sometimes we see the opposite: the parent gives in to keep the peace. Children typically respond to this parental reaction with an increase in active or passive aggressive behavior, or they ‘submit’ with defiant compliance. Another approach that parents may want to try is to withdraw from the conflict. Help the child to see how to use power constructively by gaining the feeling of control through demonstrating their areas of mastery. The feeling of power is best expressed through competency. Being the best in math, being the best batter on their baseball team, etc. are all positive ways to meet this goal. Sit down with your child and identify their strengths so they can start to make the shift towards a positive expression of their need for power.

Revenge is another of the four goals identified by Dreikurs. A child seeking revenge feels “I belong only by hurting others, as I feel hurt. I cannot be loved.” When dealing with this behavior, a parent will feel deeply hurt and the tendency is to retaliate and get even. Unfortunately, this sparks the child to seek further revenge by intensifying the misbehavior. Parents need to realize that the child’s revengeful behavior stems from discouragement and is not caused by the parents. What a child who is seeking revenge needs from the parent is a trusting relationship and to be convinced that he or she is loved unconditionally.

Lastly, a child displaying feelings of inadequacy feels “I belong only by convincing others not to expect anything from me. I am unable; I am helpless.” Parents will know if a child is pursuing this goal if they are also feeling despair and want to give up. The typical reaction to this type of behavior is to agree with the child that nothing can be done. The child generally responds passively and does not improve. What parents need to do is stop all criticism. Instead, encourage any positive attempts, no matter how small. Start to focus on the child’s assets and above all don’t get hooked into the pity and never give up on your child.

Parents, by paying close attention to how you feel when your child misbehaves, you will pick up clues on what they need. Your job then is to teach an appropriate way to meet that need. By replacing inappropriate behaviors with appropriate ones, you can help your child overcome his or her feelings of discouragement. Parents, changing how you respond to your children’s misbehavior will change their behavior.