Dear Parents and Caregivers,
I’ve recently picked up child psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs’ book “Children: The Challenge”. It’s a classic and some of the examples are outdated yet the philosophy about what children need and what motivates their behavior is so right on. It is this philosophy, originally developed by psychologist Alfred Adler, that is the foundation for many parenting programs including Vicki Hoefle’s work and “Positive Discipline”.
The idea is that all human behavior has a purpose and that purpose is to attain some sort of goal. We are social beings, and as such our ultimate goal is to feel a sense of belonging and significance within our immediate group (the first of which is our family). As such a child’s behavior is a means to attain the basic goal of feeling they belong and finding their place in the family.
Through trial and error and by trying on different behaviors children decide which behavior works to get their needs met. As Dreikurs says, children will “repeat the behavior that gives them a sense of having a place in their family and abandon that which makes them feel left out”. If productive behaviors don’t give them this sense, they will try on “misbehaviors” to see if this new way of acting gives them a better sense of belonging.
Interested in understanding more about how this works? Read on!
A misbehaving child is a discouraged child
JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
“My child needs my attention 24-7.”
“Every interaction with my child ends up in a power struggle.”
“There is so much disrespect in our relationship.”
“My child has given up and won't even try.”
In my Feb 24 column I talked about how behaviors are goal directed – they are attempts to get certain needs met. These needs can be summarized by the Crucial C’s as stated by authors Amy Lew, Ph.D. and Betty Lou Bettner, Ph.D. as "connection to others, to be capable of a degree of independence, to count as a member of the family and the community, and to find the courage to meet life's demands and seize its opportunities."
Children will try various behaviors to get these needs met.
When they try out constructive behaviors (asking for help, wanting to do things on their own, kindly stating their opinion) and their needs are met (parents pay attention, allow independence, give their children a say), then these behaviors will become part of their life’s strategies and how they interact with others.
However, if children’s needs don’t get met through constructive behaviors, for example if their efforts are met with criticism, lack of respect or dismissal, children will often feel discouraged and try out “misbehaviors.” A child may begin to whine, engage in power struggles or defy agreements in order to feel connected, capable or that they count. While it may sound counterintuitive, sometimes these misbehaviors, which are based on the child’s mistaken belief about how to achieve the Crucial C’s, do meet the child’s needs. These behaviors then become part of a child’s strategies and how they interact with others.
There are four mistaken goals of behavior that correspond with the Crucial C’s:
Attention. Children who don’t feel connected will often seek out undue attention in order to feel that they belong. Their mistaken belief is “I belong only when I have your attention. These are the children who are always needy, occupying every minute of your time.
Power. Children who don’t feel capable and are not given the chance to independently take care of themselves and contribute to their first community (their family) may feel inadequate and begin using power as a way to feel capable. Their mistaken belief is “I belong only when I’m the boss, or when I won’t let you boss me around.” Their power comes from the feeling that “You can’t make me!” They may seek control over themselves, others, or the situation at hand.
Revenge. Children who don’t feel that they count or matter, often feel hurt and insignificant. These are children whose efforts go unnoticed, or may not feel needed or liked. They may feel so hurt that they try to get revenge by hurting others. Their mistaken belief is “I don’t belong. I knew you were against me. At least I can hurt back.”
Avoidance. Children who don’t have courage often feel they are not good enough. This feeling of being inferior can lead them to avoid. This can show up as assumed inadequacy or helplessness. Their mistaken belief is “It is impossible to belong. I can’t do anything right. I might as well give up.” These are the children who give up, shrink back up or don’t want to try. Their thought is that it is better to not even try so no one sees their inabilities.
It’s important to note that sometimes our children’s physical and emotional development and brain maturity isn't quite there for them to use productive behaviors to get their needs met. Sometimes they don’t have the skills to ask politely, control their impulses and regulate their emotions. Sometimes they don’t have the knowledge of what appropriate behavior is in a certain situation. This is when we have to be really aware of what our responses to our children’s challenges are teaching them. Are we modeling the behavior we want to see, connecting with our children empathetically and teaching skills? Or are we responding with anger, punishment, criticism or shame and thus discouraging our children which may lead them toward the need for misbehavior?
If we go by the theory that “a misbehaving child is a discouraged child” as psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs writes in his book “Children the Challenge,” what we need to do is investigate where the discouragement lies. Which Crucial C is my child not feeling? What is my child’s belief, or even mistaken belief, behind the behavior? How do my responses contribute to his belief? How can I encourage my child and help her develop a more positive belief about herself?
In my next four columns spaced at 6-week intervals I will dive into these mistaken beliefs in more detail using concrete examples, giving ideas about how to encourage the discouraged child toward behavior that gets their needs met in a more productive way.
If you would like to discuss these ideas in more depth, join me for my “Parent Talk” discussion group via Zoom at 6pm on April 21. Find details here.
Rachel would like to thank Amy Lew, Ph.D., and her book “A Parent’s Guide to Understanding and Motivating Children” for inspiration for this column.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!