All behavior has a purpose. What this means is that everything a child does, he or she does with a goal in mind, whether that goal is conscious or unconscious. Our responses to their behaviors either reinforce the goals they had in those behaviors, or our responses discourage those goals and help the child to make new goals and to develop new behaviors. According to Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikurs, there are four basic goals to misbehavior: 1) Attention 2) Power and control 3) Revenge 4) Avoidance of responsibility. Through paying attention to your own gut reactions to the misbehavior displayed, you can identify the goal or goals, and you can intentionally choose responses that discourage and do not reinforce the misbehavior. Like with all of us, if our purpose in our behavior is not met, we choose another behavior. Children will respond in kind.
When a child’s goal is attention, the parent usually feels frustrated and drained. Our gut responses are to react to the child out of that frustration, which of course gives them attention (albeit negative attention) and reinforces the exact behavior we do not want to see. Removal of attention is the best response; turning away from the child who is whining for mommy when she is on the phone, for example, is much better than leaning down to the child and saying, “I’m on the phone!” A tantrum needs an audience to be effective, so removing the audience and the attending response of the parent stops reinforcing the attention goal. Once you have removed the attention, as soon as the child stops the misbehavior, it is a good idea to immediately respond with positive attention, teaching the child that while whining or demanding does not work, doing the positive thing will get them the attention they seek. Catch them being good, and give them attention for it. Through this intervention, children learn the correct way to get attention, and they learn to seek positive attention instead of negative attention.
The power and control goal leaves the parent feeling powerless, out of control, and overwhelmed. Our guts tell us to exert power over the child to deal with this goal, but that simply reinforces the power struggle and continues it. Instead, it is best to respond with choices, offered matter-of-factly, that the parent doesn’t mind the child choosing. In other words, make sure your choices are actual choices the child can make with your approval, or at least that you are OK if they make them. Begin offering your child choices as soon as possible, even if they do not understand all your words – simple choices like, would you rather wear the green shirt or the yellow shirt? When they are very young, their choices are basic ones, often between just two options, but as they get a little older and can respond with the language of their own, you want to broaden the choices out gradually, with a goal of them being able to make good choices on their own by the time they are about 9 or 10. Teaching a child how to make good choices is probably the most important lesson a parent can teach, second only to a love of God.
The goal of revenge is a bit tougher to handle but easy to identify. If you feel hurt by something the child does or says, the goal is likely revenge. “I hate you!” is quite a common revenge statement, trying to get back at you for something you have done like setting limits or refusing something they want. Keep in mind the understanding that having the goal succeed will reinforce the goal, and with this goal of revenge, hurting you is the goal. So, consider the source (a child trying to get his or her way) and do not personalize their words or actions. In other words, don’t let yourself be hurt. Respond in a straightforward and emotionally detached manner, and do not respond directly to the revenge action or statement, shifting focus instead to something else (perhaps back to what you originally asked of them). As with attention-seeking behavior, once the revenge behavior stops, restore positive interaction and relationship with the child, hopefully teaching them lessons such as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The final goal, avoidance of responsibility, often evidences as the child acting as if they are inadequate to a task; however, it is not about the child feeling inadequate, although if this goal is reinforced over the child’s life they will begin to believe they are inadequate. It is about displaying inadequacy to avoid responsibility. The child who quite capably pulled out all of their toys suddenly can’t use their arms to lift a single toy to put it up. Our gut response is to do it for them, believing it is just easier to do it ourselves, but that reinforces the misbehavior, and ultimately teaches the child they are actually incapable of doing anything on their own. The correct response is encouragement – not praise, which focuses on the successful outcome, but encouragement, which focuses on the child’s capabilities. Statements such as “I have confidence that you can figure this out” and “I believe in your ability to finish this task” are encouraging statements. As a general rule, it is much better to use encouragement than praise, even when the child does not have avoidance as their goal. You want to teach your child to believe in who they are, not to only feel good about what they produce.
Everything you do as a parent teaches your child something. Be intentional about what you want them to learn. For each time you intervene, ask yourself, “what is the lesson I want them to get out of this…?” Start with the end in mind. Choose based on your intended lesson. The unintended lessons, those you don’t consider or take the time to realize you are teaching, can carry serious unintended consequences.