As parents, we often experience feelings of frustration, anger, or discouragement when our child misbehaves and NOTHING that we try seems to work. We find ourselves asking: “What is wrong with my child?” or “What is wrong with my parenting?” After reading Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, I learned to re-think misbehavior in terms of “mistaken goals of behavior”. All children need to feel a sense of belonging, self-worth, and significance. When a child is not getting these needs met, he or she often feels discouraged. A discouraged child who wants to belong believes that their misbehavior will help him or her reach this goal.

Since many children are unable to verbalize what mistaken goal they are trying to meet, we must get into our child’s world. It’s kind of like looking through a kaleidoscope. Initially, when a child misbehaves, all you can focus on is your personal feeling; such as anger. But what if we could shift the kaleidoscope a little, in order to better understand our child’s world better, and view our child’s misbehavior from a different perspective?

Consider the following situation: Three-year-old Jack is visiting his Nana and Papa’s house for a family gathering. Nana is cooking dinner in the kitchen, Papa is working outside in the yard, and Jack’s aunt’s, uncle’s, and cousins are playing a game in the living room. Jack attempts to join in the game by taking the game pieces and trying to play keep away with them. Out of frustration, Jack’s older cousins yell at him, demanding that he return the game pieces, and then telling him that he is too young to play. When Jack starts to reach for the spoon to stir the hot soup, Nana responds by saying: “Oh honey, it’s too hot. Nana doesn’t want you to get hurt!” When Jack tries to play outside with Papa, he is ignored by Papa mowing the lawn. Nana takes a break from cooking and walks into her bathroom to find Jack covered head to toe in her expensive make-up. Yikes! How would you respond in this situation? How would any typical adult want to respond in this situation?

Understanding Jack’s world through the kaleidoscope perspective does not mean that deliberately making a mess is okay, but it will likely affect how Nana responds. Nana will most likely remove the make-up from Jack’s hand, remind him that it is never okay to play with Nana’s make-up, and then guide him in cleaning up the mess. By taking a moment to understand that Jack’s goal was a need for attention, Nana will likely invite Jack to her in the kitchen.

So, what are these mistaken goals that children are trying to get met through their misbehavior? Rudolf Dreikurs, author of Children the Challenge, describes the four mistaken goals for misbehavior as Undue attention (to keep others busy or to get special service), Misguided power (to be the boss), Revenge (to get even), and Assumed inadequacy (to give up and be left alone).

As a parent, it can be difficult to understand your child’s mistaken goal. However, there are three suggestions to help you

 1.  Your Own Feelings in Response to the Behavior: How you are feeling immediately following the behavior, is your first.

  • When the goal is Undue Attention, you are more likely to feel annoyed, irritated, worried, or guilty.
  • When the goal is Misguided Power, you are more likely to feel challenged, threatened, or defeated.
  • When the goal is Revenge, you are more likely to feel hurt, disappointed, disbelief, or disgusted.
  • When the goal is Assumed inadequacy, you are more likely to feel like giving up, doing for your child, or overhelping.

2.  Your Usual (Ineffective) Attempts to Stop the Behavior: How you usually respond to the child’s behavior is a second clue. Usually adults respond to the mistaken goal in predictable ways.

  • For Undue attention, you are more likely to respond by reminding, coaxing, doing things for the child that he/she could do for themselves.
  • For Misguided power, you are more likely to respond by fighting, giving in, thinking “you can’t get away with it” or “I’ll make you”. Your response will likely result in the parent wanting to be right.
  • For Revenge, you are more likely going to respond by retaliating, getting even, thinking “how could you do this to me?”
  • For Assumed inadequacy, you are more likely going to respond by giving up, doing for, or overhelping

 3.  Your child’s Response to Your Ineffective Action: The last clue is in figuring out your child’s mistaken goal is how your child responds when you try to stop the misbehavior using more punitive or permissive methods.

  • For Undue attention, your child will likely respond to you by stopping temporarily but later resumes same of another disturbing behavior.
  • For Misguided power, your child will likely respond to you by intensifying behavior, defiant compliance, or feel he/she has won when parent is upset.
  • For Revenge, your child will likely respond to you by retaliating, escalating the same behavior, or chooses another weapon.
  • For Assumed inadequacy, your child will likely respond to you by retreating, further passive behavior, no improvement, or no response.

So, how you respond to your child’s misbehavior is critical, allowing your child to reach his or her goal for misbehavior in a productive way.

  • If the goal is Undue attention, ignore attention-getting activity, give no reinforcement for negative behavior, and provide child with opportunities for positive attention. Remember that only action helps; not words. The child needs to learn to feel good from accomplishment and contribution.
  • If the goal is Misguided power, withdraw from power struggle. Set firm limits and act without getting angry. You can choose your own course of action, and so can the child.
  • If the goal is Revenge, do not take attack personally or feel hurt. Try to be friendly and empathic and find out what is bothering the child. Let the child express upset with words and make child feel safe. Offer safe vehicle for acting out aggression and seek professional help.
  • If the goal is Assumed inadequacy, offer initial empathy (“I’m sorry you feel bad”) but gradually shift to questioning the child about what can be done to help deal with the distress or prevent it.

Click here to be directed to the Mistaken Goals Chart, which can be hung up on your refrigerator as a reminder:

So, the next time your child misbehaves, try getting into your child’s world to help you interpret the meaning of your child’s behavior. Likely, your child is responding to some emotional need not being met. No matter what the goal is for your child, responding to them with encouragement, compassion, unconditional love, and patience is always best, and is more likely going to provide your child with that emotional need that they are mistakenly trying to get met.

Source: Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D, Cheryl Erwin, M.A., and Roslyn Ann Duffy (2007)

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