Home Life by Bev and Phil Haas
I’ve heard other parents say their kids were driving them crazy. I never thought I’d say that, but now I’m starting to think it. I’m frustrated with my kids’ misbehavior. How can I keep from becoming a nagging parent?
Understanding the difference between misbehavior and mistaken behavior may help you get a handle on your frustration and move you and your kids in a more positive direction.
As a rule, when we talk about misbehavior we imply willful wrongdoing for which a child must be disciplined or punished. Dan Gartrell, former teacher and author of The Power of Guidance (Cengage Learning, 2003), believes the term misbehavior is akin to moral labeling of the child. Children who misbehave are seen as naughty, rowdy, or unkind. Kids tend to internalize negative labels, see themselves as they are labeled, and react accordingly. Yes, we are all sinners (Roman 3:23), but we must be careful not to label our kids and launch them into a negative cycle.
Mistaken behavior is a phrase we first encountered when reading Rudolph Driekurs’ classic book, Children: the Challenge (Penguin Group, 1991). Driekurs refers to the behavior of a child who is trying to feel significant in ways that are distressing to the parent as mistaken behavior rather than misbehavior. Children have the same need to feel significant as adults, but they sometimes go about meeting this need in ways that frustrate their parents. By using the phrase mistaken behavior we remind ourselves that our child is at the front end of a lifelong learning process and that in the course of learning will certainly make mistakes.
Four Goals of Mistaken Behavior
According to Driekurs there are four basic goals of mistaken behavior: attention seeking, power, revenge, and withdrawal. The key to understanding these behaviors is to determine what feelings are stirred up in the parent. First is the goal of attention. This is a deliberate attempt to keep the parent busy with them. The child pesters the parent or becomes a show off. One can be fairly certain the goal is attention seeking when the parent feels annoyed, bothered, and irritated. When attention is given, the child temporarily stops the irritating behavior, but it soon returns when the attention is taken away.
The second goal is that of power. “I’m the boss,” states the child with hands on hips. This behavior is recognized when the child resists doing what is asked or does the opposite. Temper tantrums are not unusual when children decide they are the boss. Parents feel threatened, provoked, or even intimidated. A common feeling is one of losing control, which often initiates a determination to gain control of the child’s behavior
The first two goals are more common, but the next two goals are more serious. Revenge is the third goal. Here the child attempts to get even with the parent. The child may be defiant or hostile. Normally the parent is deeply hurt, which may be experienced as anger and resentment. Usually the parent responds to this behavior by punishing the child—anything from verbally berating to physically striking out. Responses such as these may cause the child to intensify her actions and hurt others, destroy property, or run away. The fourth goal, withdrawal, may occur when the child feels so discouraged he quits trying. Often the parent feels helpless and discouraged and may also give up on the child, reinforcing the child’s feelings of inadequacy and causing the child to regress further.
A Few Suggestions
Giving constructive attention at appropriate times and ignoring the mistaken behavior may be useful to handle attention seeking. Unconstructive attention such as nagging should be avoided. When dealing with power, include removing oneself from the area, enlisting the child’s help with a chore or other task, and providing situations where the child can use her power constructively, such as being in charge of something. It’s generally best not to engage in a power struggle because no one wins.
Revenge requires that the parent listens passively and avoids retaliation. It’s also necessary for the parent to display mutual respect. Withdrawal compels the parent to make an effort to trust the child with small responsibilities and to build on all successes no matter how small. The child who feels inadequate needs encouragement to develop self-confidence.
With this new information we hope you will be able to handle your kids’ mistaken behavior with less frustration.
Send your questions about family life to Phil and Bev Haas in care of The Lookout, 8805 Governor’s Hill Drive, Suite 400, Cincinnati, OH 45249, firstname.lastname@example.org. We regret that personal replies are not always possible. Phil and Bev Haas are involved in education and family ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are the parents of two children, and they have one grandson.