Creative Child

The Four Goals of Misbehavior Series: Part One

by Rebecca Eanes

When is the last time your child’s behavior completely baffled you? What causes children to misbehave when, in your view, they clearly should know better? It can be hard to understand what is motivating your child to behave, but understanding what drives behavior is a key component of positive parenting. When we seek to understand that is motivating our children, we are better able to address the cause of the behavior rather than reacting to the behavior itself. That is where real change takes place – at the root. If we don’t address it there, it will just keep cropping up again and again.

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I recently discovered the work of Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs. He was a psychiatrist who founded and was the medical director of the Community Child Guidance Center in Chicago. Dreikurs was influenced by social psychologist Alfred Adler who believed that the central motivation of all humans is to belong and be accepted by others. He believed that all behavior was purposeful and directed toward achieving social approval. Dreikurs suggested that all misbehavior is eh result of a child’s mistaken assumption about how to find a place and gain status. He did not believe in using punishment, rewards, or praise to change behavior, but rather that natural consequences and encouragement were the most useful techniques for preventing misbehavior.

Following is an overview of the first two of Dreikurs’ four goals of misbehavior along with my own suggestions on how to deal with each one.

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Goal one: Attention

One of the common motivators of misbehavior, according to Dreikurs, is to get attention. This is driven by the belief that they do not matter (belong) unless they are being noticed or served. Children who are seeking attention with negative behaviors feel insignificant. Parents are often told to ignore children when they appear to be seeking attention because it is a popular opinion that giving children the attention they seek will reward or reinforce negative behaviors. Relating to this advice, Dr. Gordon Neufeld of the Neufeld Institute says this: “What else is there to want? And if we see a child who wants attention, why wouldn’t we give it to them? Why wouldn’t we meet these basic needs of affection, attention, of mattering and significance?”

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