Why Do Children Misbehave?


Rudolph Dreikurs was a child psychiatrist and educator who took a very practical approach to children's development.  Unlike the popular theory of the day which emphasized drive theory--that people are motivated by their instinctual drives (sex and aggression), Dreikurs believed that people are primarily motivated by their need to belong, and that much of our behavior is directed toward finding an important place in the social world.  People who have lost hope that they will ever belong, said Dreikurs, need encouragement.  Not like a cheerleader, but someone who believes that things can change.

Rudolph Dreikurs

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, a child gets 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 a child feels like they don't belong, or are "lower on the totem pole" than others, they misbehave as a way to gain social status.  When gaining attention doesn't work, they move to the next, more intense, 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 (not recognizing them).  This is the goal of revenge.

Finally, when all has failed to help the child feel more like they are important to their community (family, class in school, church or temple group, etc.), they feel defeated--that there is nothing they can do to feel important, and their behavior shows it.

What You Can Do 

Gaining attention:  Ignore the attention-seeking behavior and help your child feel loved for the positive things he/she does by noticing appropriate behavior when it happens, distract your child away from the attention-seeking behavior with alternative actions or choices ("Hey, could you come over here and help me with this?."

Gaining 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 escalate that bad behavior until you give up in frustration.  He or she wins this misguided battle for status.

Revenge:  A child who seeks revenge is really hoping to find love.  Their vengeful behavior is showing us that they feel so bad about themselves, and so misunderstood, that they are resorting to wanting 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 ask 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, dispassionate consequence.

Inadequacy and helplessness:  This  is the child who has given up on himself or herself. Their 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, and be mindful of the subtle ways in which you have also become discouraged.  These children will take it personally.

All information contained in this site is Copyright 2014, Robin Walker.  The information here is not intended as a substitute for professional care and is not to be construed as advice.  Reproduction is prohibited without the express permission of the author.