Home » Library » Parenting » Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II

Goals of Misbehavior

Rudolf Dreikurs identified four common negative cycles that he termed “goals of misbehavior:” attention, power, revenge, and displays of inadequacy. It’s unfortunate that he named them “goals” because it confuses things. The goal is always the same — to have a unique and secure place. It’s more helpful to see the cycles as methods or styles that children resort to when they cannot find positive ways to interact. All four methods are available to anyone when he or she gets discouraged. If one technique doesn’t work, the frustrated child often moves on to the next. (Adult misbehavior isn’t that different; only more complex or more hidden.)

I’ve observed that parents and children don’t necessarily move through the different types of negative interaction in a linear way, from one kind of negative cycle to the next. Sometimes they get stuck in one pattern. Sometimes they develop a repertoire of negativity that includes all four styles.

What unhappy families have in common is that the negative cycles begin to take on a life of their own. Although they may angrily blame the kids for being rotten kids, the parents often feel terribly guilty for the way they feel about their children and bankrupt as effective parents. Meanwhile, the children become more and more discouraged. Self-esteem suffers and they learn to be experts in being as “rotten” as their parents accuse them of being. The exceptions are the saddest children of all — those who give up being terrible behavior problems and eventually become clinically depressed. These are the children who no longer believe that anyone will notice them no matter what they do.

In summary: All behavior is an attempt to find a place in the group. In children, it’s an instinctive effort to be noticed and nurtured and to find a unique place in the family. Negative behaviors are interactional. They are something that happen between parent and child. It’s hard to spot the beginning of a negative cycle, but we can identify one by recognizing typical patterns. See the charts below. Once we understand what is going on, we can be far more effective in correcting the problem.

When a child misbehaves,

The adult feels ___ and tries to correct the child.The child then . . .The adult then. . .So it is a cycle of . . .
Annoyed, irritatedStops temporarily, starts again soonKeeps pushing the child away; acts annoyedAttention
Angry, defeated, as if authority is threatenedContinues and gets worseEngages in battle or tries to avoid it by withdrawing (fight or flight).Power
Disappointed, let down, hurt, may be provoked to be mean.Escalates further or adds something that hurts.Hurts back. Provokes guilt, feels guilty.Revenge
Bewildered, as if perhaps the situation is hopeless.Gives up; acts lifeless, helpless, lostPities, treats the child as “unable,” acts embarrassedInadequacy


Article continues below...
Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Bear in mind that a cycle is a circle. It can begin at any spot. It is only for the sake of convenience that the above chart starts with an observation of what the child does. We could just as easily begin with a look at what happens to a child when significant adults in his or her life have an off day or scold or make demands that the kid can’t reach. Then the chart would look something like this:

When the adult . . .The child then . . .The adult then. . .So it is a cycle of . . .
Keeps pushing the child away; doesn’t acknowledge the childStarts to do anything to draw attention; may stop temporarily, and then start again.Keeps pushing the child away; acts annoyedAttention
Makes lots of demands with no explanations: “When I say jump, you say ‘How high?’”Gets defiant; refuses orders; behavior gets worse.Engages in battle or power struggle; feels angry.Power
Hurts or threatens hurt. Provokes guilt or shame.Tries to get even by hurting back; finds ways to embarrass the adult or hurt them, or hurt their feelings.Hurts back. Provokes guilt; feels entitled to hurt the child. May feel guilty for being mean.Revenge
Pretends child doesn’t exist or treats the child as “unable” Gives up; acts lifeless, helpless, lost Continues to ignore or pity. Inadequacy


By the time you notice a cycle, it’s really too late to know how it began. It doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is whether the adults care to do what it takes to correct the situation. It falls on the adults to change things. We are, after all, the adults. We can reasonably be expected to use our adult minds and our instincts to care for children to make things better. There are skills we can all learn that will help us both pull out of negative cycles with dignity and initiate positive cycles.

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.