All behavior is purposeful, and as such, it is critical that you understand your youngster’s goal. Everything our kids say and do has a purpose. At its most basic level, your youngster’s focus is to have some significance and establish a place in his various environments.
A well-adjusted youngster has found his way toward social acceptance by cooperating with the requirements of the group and by making his own useful contribution to it. The misbehaving youngster is still trying, in a mistaken way, to feel important in his own world. For example, a kid who has never been allowed to dress himself (because the mother/father is in a hurry), or who has not been allowed to help around the house ("you're not big enough to set the table"), may lack the feeling that he is a useful, contributing member of the family, and might feel important only when arousing a mother/father's anger and annoyance with misbehavior.
Most kids are not aware of the goals or purposes of their behavior. But their behavior, while appearing senseless and illogical to adults, makes complete sense in terms of his own perception of his place in the family, school and community. As such, when children misbehave, they are frequently trying to fulfill one of the following four primary goals:
- Attention-getting— She wants attention and service. We, as moms and dads, respond by feeling annoyed and that we need to remind and coax her.
- Display of inadequacy— She wants to be left alone with no demands made upon her. We respond by feeling despair (e.g., “I don't know what to do!").
- Power— She wants to be the boss. We respond by feeling provoked and get into a power contest with her (e.g., “You can't get away with this!").
- Revenge— She wants to hurt us. We respond by feeling deeply hurt (e.g., “I'll get even!").
If, as you read over these primary goals, you found the behavior and the parental response resonating with situations and events in your life, you have probably discovered the goal or purpose of your youngster's misbehavior. And once you understand the goal or purpose of a behavior, you can use the following principle to effectively change it:
==> Important Principle: If a given behavior isn’t fulfilling its goal or purpose, every youngster will opt for a different behavior.
Once we know why our children are doing what they are doing, and once we understand the goal or purpose of a given behavior, we are given a tremendous lever for inducing behavioral change. Let’s look at an example so that you can understand what I am saying here…
A lot of family’s that I have worked with over the years presented with a common complaint: “My youngster won’t listen to me anymore. Any time I try to get him to do something, all he wants to do is argue. My home has become a war zone and I just can’t stand living this way anymore.”
At this point, my question to the mother/father is this, “How do you react when your youngster becomes belligerent and begins arguing with you?” In most cases, the parent says he/she gets into an argument with the youngster. There is a “debate” with the situation escalating to the point that the mother/father gets fed up and says, “Go ahead, do whatever you want. You’re not going to listen to me anyway.”
Referring back to the list of goals of misbehavior listed above, why is this kid - or any kid - choosing to escalate the situation and argue with their mother/father? Isn’t that a perfect example of a kid who is acting up in order to take power and get what he wants? And by choosing to engage in the process, the mother/father is playing right into the kid’s hands.
Now what do you think would happen if the mother/father, rather than taking the bait, simply refused to get angry and refused to argue? What would happen if the mother/father said, “I’m not going to fight with you, and I’m not comfortable even discussing this with you until you calm down.”
First of all, the kid would probably have a heart attack because this isn’t the way he is used to doing business. Mom/dad has done something different, acting in an unpredictable way, and that is very confusing to the youngster. Predictably, once the initial shock wears off, the youngster might redouble his efforts to get the mother or father to engage. But what would happen if mom or dad held the line and refused to argue and fight with the youngster? What would happen if the parent went so far as to suggest that the youngster needed to go to another part of the house and come back when he has been able to get himself under control?
With a kid that is used to playing the anger card to get his way, he is likely to refuse this suggestion and continue to try to escalate the parent. This is the way he has always played before! But what would happen if mom continued to stick to her guns and withdraw from the situation? What would happen if she refused to have the conversation until her youngster spoke to her in an appropriate and civil manner? Right! Her youngster is going to have to change his behavior.
Let's use the example of ping pong. What would happen if one of the players put down her ping pong paddle? Game over …right!? Well, the same is true in terms of our children and their negative behaviors. If we refuse to engage, to tolerate and respond to the negative behavior, they are going to have to do something different. They are going to have to select another behavior in order to achieve their goal. And as moms and dads, we can go a long way toward guiding this choice into more appropriate and respectful areas.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Defiant Teens