How to Connect with Your Children, Even During Misbehavior

February 4, 2021

At times it can be difficult to not take your child’s behavior personally and it is common to get overwhelmed when children act out. A resource used often in session with parents and children is called the “Four Goals of Misbehavior” created by Rudolf Dreikurs. These goals provide insight into motivation and possible root causes of misbehavior and can assist parents in feeling the ability to connect with their children, even during misbehavior.

This goal can be rooted in a child’s thought that, “I only belong when I get noticed or acknowledged by others.” You might find yourself being easily annoyed by these types of behaviors and constantly asking your child to stop the behavior and find something else to do. 

An intervention to work on reducing attention seeking behaviors would be to give a burst of attention. This intervention communicates to the child that they are important and do not need to seek attention in unhealthy ways. You can do this at random points of the day, and give them undivided attention for 30 short seconds. Get down on their level and interact. I have even had parents set planned phone calls with family or friends that they can verbally tell the person on the phone to hold on, while they give this burst of attention to the child.  

Power and Control
“I belong only when I am in control, or when I can prove that no one can tell me what to do.” This power struggle can be exhausting and happen in the least expected moments. This can cause anger from parents and a sense that their authority is being challenged. This can lead to both digging their heels in and escalating a conflict.

One way to combat and divert power struggles is to offer choices that you as a parent are okay with both outcomes. If a child is refusing to walk to the car, you can offer choices of “Would you like to hop or skip with me to the car?” Offering consistent choices gives children a sense of control over age-appropriate parts of their world that often feels so out of control. Giving choices also provides opportunities for them to feel confident and competent, making it more likely that they can process and accept direction more easily in the future. It’s important to process the choices you are offering first, as sometimes parents can punish themselves with the choices given. “Do you want to stay by the cart, or should we leave and go home?” is a great example of one choice that may have more consequences for the parent than the child. If they choose to continue to act up and prefer to go home, the parent either must drop their shopping expectations or go home, or risk sending a message that they will not follow through on stated consequences.  

This goal stems from a child’s thought that, “I belong only by hurting others as I feel hurt and I cannot be loved.”  This behavior can hurt parents deeply, and can allow parents to get caught in a cycle of retaliating by giving excessive consequences.

Limit setting is a great way to address revenge-seeking behaviors. Children are often triggered when they feel as though no one understands them or feelings are not validated. Offering an alternative to revenge behaviors can validate feelings and give concrete choices in behavior that are healthier. A parent might say something similar to, “You are angry right now that I wouldn’t let you go outside. Saying, 'I hate you' is not something that we say to each other, and you can choose to tell me you are mad at me, or you can take a short break in your room.”  

Display of Inadequacy
This goal describes occurrences in which children can perceive, “I belong only by convincing others to not expect anything from me, and I am helpless.”  These negative thoughts can often snowball from low self-esteem and can leave parents heartbroken and deeply saddened for their children.  Sometimes it can be easy to agree with children that nothing can be done, to which children respond by needing significant help from others to complete simple tasks. 

Attempts and expressions of encouragement best address inadequacy. Praise is a large component of reward for children, yet does not often assist when children struggle with proving inadequacy as praise is often focused on the end product. “Praise the effort, not the product” is a growing way to transition parent praise to address this type of misbehavior. Even the smallest display of effort can be offered. In a therapy session, I often say something as simple as, “You wanted that done, and you did it" or “You wanted that open and tried so hard to do it, and now you are asking for help. How can I help you?”  

Knowing and understanding why children misbehave can offer a sense of hope and understanding to families struggling. Once parents are able to understand themes of their children’s behaviors, it is incredible to see the growth and healing that can occur for not only the child, but the parents as well. Having some of these skills available to address misbehavior can help shift thinking from, “Why are you acting this way?” to “What are you needing in this moment?”

Bryant Miller, LCMFT, RPT