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Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II

What About Unhealthy Families?

Unfortunately, not every child has the good fortune to be born into a healthy family or into a good time in family life. Even the best of families have times when the adults are so distracted by misfortune, tragedy, or illness that they become unable or unwilling to be nurturing. In unhealthy families, adults are so preoccupied with themselves that they have no tolerance for children’s normal needs for attention. In situations like these, what’s a kid to do?

Kids’ instincts are to do whatever it takes to snag the notice of the adults they depend on. Since adult attention is crucial to physical and emotional survival, the kids will try repeatedly to engage the adults. If they get too discouraged about their ability to be noticed and to belong in a positive way, they switch to antisocial and sometimes destructive methods and begin to assert themselves in a negative way. If being good, quiet, and helpful doesn’t work, maybe being “bad,”, noisy or destructive will. It does work. It’s almost impossible to ignore a kid who is being a nuisance, having a tantrum, hurting others or hurting himself. Negative attention, even hurtful attention, is still attention. Getting at least negative attention from the big folks is a kind of active involvement.

What sometimes baffles adults are the situations where the adults seem quite willing to provide the attention and nurturing a kid needs but the child still switches to negative behaviors. Why? What causes a child who, by all outside standards, should feel acknowledged and secure, to become a little tyrant? Studies are being done on temperament, brain anomalies, and emotional intelligence of the child and parenting styles, temperament, and emotional intelligence of the adults. Science may someday give us an answer. For now, we only have the theories and successful practices of people who specialize in child psychology and family dynamics.

Rudolf Drikurs, a student of Adler’s and a teacher of parents and schoolteachers, came up with a workable idea. He suggested that the child interprets something or some series of things that happen as an indication that he cannot make himself a positive place, so he then resorts to negative methods. Children, like adults, do reason but their reasoning powers aren’t developed. Sometimes their interpretation of events leads them to mistaken conclusions. When that happens, the negative cycle can get started. The child acts up. If the adults react badly, the child feels further justified in his or her conclusion that there’s no winning with these people. The negative cycle continues.

The basic principle is that when a child believes (rightly or wrongly) that he can’t become a positive contributing member of the family, he will cast about for a way to be noticed through negative means. All of a child’s behavior, according to Dreikurs, can be understood only when seen in interaction with others. It does not happen in isolation. It is something that happens between the child and someone (or many someones).

How do otherwise healthy, intelligent adults get caught up in a negative cycle with a child? You might as well ask who gets to go through a door first when two people are walking together. So much of communication is by gestures and movements that can be easily misunderstood, misinterpreted or misnamed. It can happen to the best of us. Assigning blame (or credit) for who started it doesn’t help either party get out of the cycle. The important thing is to be able to recognize when we’ve become involved in one of these negative cycles and to have some tools for extricating ourselves.

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 7, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.