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

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part II

According to the theory of noted psychologist Alfred Adler, the basic motivation for all human behavior is the desire to belong. People need other people.

At our most basic level, we are in fact pack animals. Just like a wolf pack, we instinctively look for a group where we have membership, where we feel protected, and where we have a place. Young children, like wolf cubs, constantly check with the adults to see whether they are doing the right thing. Preteens and teens start to separate from their families and make cliques. College students and young adults join fraternities or find other ways to make friendship groups. Adults make communities based on where they live or work or worship or play.

Everyone at least starts out with the idea that being part of some circle of trusted others is the way to have needed comfort and support in an unpredictable world. Yes, there are people who reject others: some as a discipline (monastic orders, for example), some as a response to hurt, some as a way to feel superior. But even holy monks, hermits, and insufferable snobs need other people — if only to have people to withdraw from.

Children Need to Belong Too

Very young children are no different from adults except that their choice for a group is usually limited to their families. The family is the first human group in which we have membership. It’s where we figure out how to fit in with others and how we need to behave to get what we need from the group. Given the opportunity, children will work to be included, to contribute, and to find a place in a useful and constructive way. This isn’t calculated. Kids (like wolf cubs) instinctively copy the grownups they admire. Children follow their parents and older siblings around, trying to be just like them. It’s cute but it’s also a rehearsal for how to be a contributing member of the family.

Because it is cute and even sometimes helpful, healthy adults respond with approval and attention. A cycle of positive interaction is then established that encourages the children to continue to be helpful and learn new skills and that encourages the adults to be close and protective.

If you have any doubts about whether this is true, think about the last time you were at the beach or pool where young children and their parents were relaxed and at play. In healthy families, you will observe the kids calling, “Look at me!” “Mom. Watch this.” “Mom. Mom. Look what I can do.” “Dad. Did you see that?” The moms and dads do watch. They smile. They praise. And the kids keep working on learning how to duck under water, swim, dive, do handstands — whatever will keep the adults smiling. The good feelings run between the parents and children and make those observing them smile too.

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

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.

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, irritated Stops temporarily, starts again soon Keeps pushing the child away; acts annoyed Attention
Angry, defeated, as if authority is threatened Continues and gets worse Engages 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, lost Pities, treats the child as “unable,” acts embarrassed Inadequacy


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 child Starts to do anything to draw attention; may stop temporarily, and then start again. Keeps pushing the child away; acts annoyed Attention
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 12, 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.