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Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III

Learning from The Cases

Each of these children, Carla, Eddy, Mary and Thomas, is feeling discouraged. Something has gotten going in their relationships with their parents that has led to mutual negativity. The kids misbehave, not because they are bad, but because they are emotionally needy. The adults mis-behave (as in, behave in ways that miss the problem) because they don’t recognize that they have a part in what is happening. A pattern of negative interaction becomes established that at least confirms for the child that he is seen and that keeps the parent involved.

The formula for making change is simple but carrying it out takes commitment and love. First, adults need to learn to see beyond the misbehavior to the child underneath who is feeling discouraged and desperate. Then they need to understand the part they play in the negative cycle and stop playing. Finally, adults need to help these children learn new skills for becoming part of the human community.

In summary, here are some basic ways that the adults can begin to turn things around:

CycleWhat not To DoWhat To Do:
AttentionDon’t keep reminding, coaxing, scolding, nagging.Give attention but not for negative behaviors. Use actions instead of words. A touch as you walk by, a pat on the hand, or a hug lets a kid know you notice. Make times when you can give the child your full attention.
PowerDon’t engage in the power struggle. Drop your end of the tug of war and come back around later to deal with the issue.Cool off before you do anything. Use logical consequences rather than arbitrary punishment. Find ways to empower the child. Provide choices. Teach leadership skills.
RevengeResist the temptation to be sarcastic or put the child down. Don’t ever resort to physical hurt or getting even in hurtful ways.See through the hate to the hurt. Deal with the child with firmness but exquisite fairness. Remind yourself of things you like about this child and call attention to them whenever you can. Catch him being right at every opportunity.
Giving UpDon’t buy into the apparent inadequacy. Don’t feel sorry for this child. Pity makes people feel pitiful. Don’t fall into doing things for the child that she or he really is capable of doing.Show confidence in the child’s abilities. Empathize with the struggle but focus on strengths. Arrange for situations where she or he can experience success. Gradually make things more difficult to help the child grow.



A number of parent education programs and organizations have been developed to help parents learn these skills. All are based in the theory of Alfred Adler and the practice of Rudolf Dreikurs.

STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting) by Don Dinkmeyer, Gary McKay, and Don Dinkmeyer, Jr.

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Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Positive Parenting by Jane Nelsen

Active Parenting by Michael Popkin

Alyson Scafer’s Principles, Rules and Tools for Parenting

Beverly Cathcart-Ross’s The Parenting Network

See also the Family Education Association division of the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology for conferences and training in North America. For information worldwide, see the website for the International Association of Adlerian Psychology .

The classic text by Rudolf Dreikurs, with Vicki Stoltz, is Children: The Challenge. Although it was written in the fifties, the principles and skills stand the test of time.

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. (2018). Changing Children’s Behavior — Part III. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.