Understanding Misbehaviour

It was mid-September, the beginning of only the third week of school. The early autumn sun shone warm and lazy outside a small suburban rancher, as if reluctant to let go of the relaxed days of summer. The maple trees lining the street displayed broad orange and gold leaves painting an almost surreal picture of peace and serenity. Inside the rancher however, the atmosphere was anything but serene.

“Chelsea, will you please hurry, we are going to be late for school”!

Sue, a working young mom with a vivacious five year old daughter, was feeling frustrated and annoyed. Usually proactive, calm and well organized, Sue was feeling frazzled, while her daughter, on the other hand, appeared cool and unruffled – completely oblivious to any apparent need for haste.

“Chelsea, let’s go!” Sue shouted from the front door.

Slowly putting her shoes on, and then meticulously tying each of the multi-coloured laces of her new Dora the Explorer runners, Chelsea seemed to be moving in slow motion.

“Chelsea”! Sue repeated loudly once more.

Resisting the urge to forcefully drag Chelsea through the doorway toward the car, Sue was unable to hold back her tears.

“Chelsea, why are you doing this”?


Most of us who are parents can, at one time or another, relate to Sue’s frustration and feelings of annoyance. Chelsea’s behaviour is a power struggle and conveys the message “you can’t make me”.

Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs (1897-1972), an American psychiatrist and educator, theorized that children pursue four main goals when misbehaving: attention seeking, power, revenge and display of inadequacy. Each of these goals is rooted in feelings of discouragement and is based on mistaken beliefs of what is necessary to achieve significance.

Each of the four types of misbehaviour tends to illicit a corresponding emotional response in the parent which is a clue to the child’s pursued goal. The attention seeking child wants attention on demand. This usually generates a feeling of annoyance in the parent who is likely being interrupted by the child’s bid for attention. The child’s pursuit of power generally generates a feeling of anger as the parent’s authority is being challenged. The child who pursues a goal of revenge, often after having lost a power struggle, tends to generate a feeling of hurt in the parent – it is as though the child wants the parent to feel the same level of hurt he or she feels. The child who pursues a goal of display of inadequacy, also called learned helplessness, wants the parent to lower or remove expectations. He or she does this by trying to convince the parent that he or she is not capable of doing what is expected. This goal often generates a feeling of hopelessness.

Remembering that misbehaviour is purposeful and rooted in discouragement is the key to effectively responding to it. The parent’s reaction to the child’s behaviour will serve to either reinforce the use of the goal, (i.e. the misbehaviour continues because it worked) or will begin to render it ineffective (the misbehaviour diminishes because it is not working).

Our two main tools as parents in managing our children’s misbehaviour are the use of encouragement and consequences. In a sense, encouragement is the carrot, while consequences are the stick. The use of encouragement and consequences are different from the use of praise, rewards and punishment. While praise and rewards tend to focus on accomplishment, encouragement focuses on effort. Praise is a reward given to someone who has achieved something of value to the one who praises, while encouragement is a gift which focuses on what is of value to the one who makes the effort. Praise can create a sense of dependency on the one who praises by conveying the message to the receiver “you require my approval to be acceptable”. Encouragement is different. If focuses on the value of the person making the effort, not what is actually accomplished. It conveys the message “you can do it, keep at it”, “you are worthwhile”.

Consequences and punishment are also different from each other – they are the result of choices, good or bad. Consequences are related to the child’s behaviour and provide feedback – teaching us what is a good or bad decision based on the result we get. Punishment is different, It tends to focus more on the character of the one who has made the offence, conveying the message “you are bad”. It instills pain and fear and may not be related to the misdeed at all. Punishment is often more for the punisher who has been hurt and feels the right to hurt back, than it is for the one receiving the punishment. By using consequences instead of punishment, the parent conveys the message: “I love you and believe in you, I just don’t like the choice you have made”. “Let’s clear the slate and try again tomorrow.” It allows the parent to respond to his or her child calmly and respectfully without anger. It expresses love for the child and confidence that the child can make better decisions in the future. This positive expectation itself is encouraging and helps to improve the likelihood that the child will cooperate in the future.

In the case of Chelsea, Sue can provide feedback and offer a choice:

“Chelsea, if we don’t leave now you will be late for school and I will be late for work. If I am late for work, I will have to make up the time after work and therefore will not be able to bring you to your Brownies meeting tonight.”

At a later time, Sue can work on building her relationship with Chelsea by spending more time with her, when it is not being demanded, and continue to offer Chelsea choices, and where possible and appropriate, include her in other decision making that affects Chelsea. Sue can also make an extra effort to notice and specifically comment on positive behaviours which demonstrate cooperation on Chelsea’s part, i.e.:

“Chelsea, it’s great to see you getting your stuff together the night before, it really shows me how responsible you are becoming”.

By bringing attention to and commenting on positive behaviours, Sue increases the likelihood that Chelsea will choose to continue these positive behaviours in the future, instead of having to resort to misbehaviour to get attention on demand.

What is also important to remember is that as parents, we too can become discouraged. Raising respectful and responsible children is a lot of work. Recognizing our own level of discouragement is perhaps the first place for us to start in dealing with our children’s misbehaviour. Our own actions, words and attitudes send a message which our children often pick up on. If we convey the message, either in words or non-verbal communication, that we do not really believe that they will cooperate, they usually don’t – i.e. we get what we expect. By having a positive expectation on the other hand, we send the encouraging message that we believe in our children and the good choices and behaviours of which they are capable of. While a positive expectation is not a guarantee that our children will cooperate, having such an attitude helps to increase the chance that they will.

Encouraging our children, noticing their efforts, using consequences and having a positive expectation for cooperation, all help to guide our children toward more positive and cooperative behaviour while also helping to reduce the feelings of stress and frustration we can feel in parenting them.

For more information on the principles of effective parenting, refer to STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting ) The Parent’s Handbook – Don Dinkmeyer, Sr., Gary McKay, Don Dinkmeyer, Jr.


Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash

***Currently has a Waitlist for Evening Appointments, Day time Appointments are available for In Person or Virtual Appointments*** 

Don Lasell is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and is a member of the British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors. Don's areas of special interest include generalized anxiety, depression, stress, self-esteem, parenting, couple and family issues. Don utilizes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as well as Eye Movement and Reprocessing (EMDR) in his counselling work. In addition to counselling, Don also offers presentations and workshops on a variety of issues related to children, marriage and family.

Don obtained his Masters in Marital and Family Counselling in 1994 through the Adlers School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. Don is also a former teacher who has taught in an integrated classroom setting, has been an elementary and highschool counsellor, and has served as the Director of Clinical Services for a large not-for-profit agency in the lower mainland. In addition to his work in private practice, Don is also a former peer reviewer for the Council on Accreditation.

Don is married to Tanaya with whom he is the parent of seven children, two of which are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

You may also be interested in

Denis Boyd

The Conflict Habit

Denis Boyd

Anxiety in Children

Denis Boyd

Health Anxiety

Denis Boyd

Siblings Without Rivalry?

Denis Boyd

Control Your Self-Talk

Denis Boyd

Marijuana: Not all good or bad

Denis Boyd

Questions that Arise When a Loved One Dies

Denis Boyd

Interview with a Child Psychologist