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Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III

When we say that a child is misbehaving, what we mean is that somehow we have become involved in a negative cycle of interaction with that child that we don’t know how to stop. Both child and adult are caught up in it. Rudolf Dreikurs often said that as long as we think we know what to do to correct a child, we don’t call that child a “problem child.” It is when we don’t know what to do that we define the child as a problem. It could just as easily be said that the adults have run out of skills they need to redirect the child to a positive path.

In Part II, we took a look at the negative cycles of interaction between adults and children that can take on a life of their own and make family life miserable. This article will talk about basic skills adults can learn and can teach their children that stop negative cycles and put positive interactions in motion. Let’s take a look at some admittedly simple examples as illustrations of how to turn negative cycles around. In these cases, I’m assuming that the adults are average, essentially healthy grownups who are doing a reasonable job being parents.

The Case of Carla

Carla is only three but she does know how to fasten her Velcro sneakers. This morning she’s walking around with the fasteners flapping and her heels not quite in the shoes. Mom tells her, again, to just please get her shoes all the way on and press down the Velcro. She is getting annoyed. It’s always something. Either Carla puts her shirt on inside out or sports mismatched socks or puts on shorts when mom has already told her it’s a cold day and she’ll need her jeans. Each night, mom helps Carla lay out her clothes so she can dress herself for preschool while mom gets the baby ready for the day. But somehow when morning comes Carla can’t seem to get it all the way right.

This is an example of a negative attention cycle. Maybe Carla is privately worried that mom will forget about her because the new baby is getting so much attention. If you ask her, she’ll say she likes her new sister. She doesn’t know why she always needs her mom to help her finish getting dressed. These things aren’t calculated or conscious. But needing mom to correct her every morning does “work” for her. It gets her personally addressed by mom, even in the hectic hurry of getting everyone up and out on time. This is why just asking her to take care of it herself isn’t helpful. Mom, by being annoyed and having to stop whatever she is doing to make an adjustment or comment about Carla’s clothes, is letting her know that she is noticed and hasn’t been forgotten. Unless mom understands this, the cycle could go on and on.

How much better things would go if mom would spend a few minutes with Carla when she woke up to say good morning and to praise her for the good job she did choosing her clothes the night before. She could also tell her how grown up she is becoming by taking care of getting dressed all by herself. She could tell Carla how important it is for the baby to have a big sister to look up to and to copy some day. Then Carla’s needs for reassurance would be met. She wouldn’t have to resort to indirect means for getting noticed. Eventually she would be able to relax and understand that she doesn’t need to annoy her mother by acting less competent than she is in order to have a place.

The Case of Eddy

Eddy doesn’t like doing his evening chores. All the other kids in his big family of six kids manage to do their share. Eddy is the one who complains, “Why should I have to put the dishes away?” When his Dad tells him to do his share, Eddy glares at his father and answers back. Dad is angry. He asks him why he can’t just be like the other kids and do as he is told. An angry shouting match ensues. Both storm off, upset. Dad feels defeated by his 11-year- old son. Eddy has once again gotten out of doing his chore.

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This is what a power struggle often looks like. For reasons we don’t yet understand, Eddy feels lost in the shuffle. One way to make sure that he is noticed is to get into a shouting match with his dad. The adrenaline rush of a good fight makes him feel powerful. In that moment, he knows for sure that his dad is paying attention. So what if it’s a fight? He knows he is being seen.

There is a kind of craziness in a power struggle. Both the boy and his dad know that, if pushed, dad ultimately has the final say. As the adult, dad really does have all the power. He can withhold privileges. He can punish. He can impose consequences far worse than having to empty the dishwasher. Yet both father and son stay in the fight. Both get so wrapped up in it that neither can withdraw with dignity.

Dad is the adult. He can learn to use his authority in a way that gains respect instead of defiance. He can show Eddy how an adult turns a fight into an everyday problem that needs to be solved. It would be far more effective if dad said something like, “Hey, fighting only makes both of us feel bad. Let’s cool off and figure out together how to keep things fair. In a big family like this one, we really do need everyone to help. What do you think we should do when someone doesn’t like their chore?” Such a conversation lets Eddy know that dad sees him and values his opinion. It shows the boy how to stop a fight and be in respectful negotiation instead of a tantrum. Once mutual respect is the norm, there is room for the occasional time when dad really does have to give orders.

Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III

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 III. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 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.