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PO TOOLSET (“On purpose” misbehavior)



318                                                                                                                The  Parent’s  Toolshop 



12 PO TOOLSET (“On purpose” misbehavior)


If a furnace rattles or a faucet drips, it’s a symptom of a problem. We can tighten the furnace bolts or the faucet handle, but if that is not the cause of the problem, the symptoms will continue and might even get worse. If we figure out the cause of the problem and fix it, the symptoms will disappear.

In parenting, intentional misbehavior is a symptom of an underlying problem. It is the outer skin of the onion. If we react to the behavior, but don’t address the real cause, the misbehavior either escalates or gets a payoff. We want to identify what children are trying to accomplish through negative behavior and help them achieve these purposes through positive behavior. When we address the real issue, the symptom (intentional misbehavior) usually stops.



In Chapter 3, “The Universal Blueprint,” we learned three questions to ask to identify the type of problem we are facing: (1) Is it a Child problem or Parent problem (SHARP RV)? (2) If there’s misbehavior, is it PU or PO? (3) If the misbehavior is PO, what is the purpose? This chapter teaches us how to answer the third and final question. We already know the tools we’ll use to redirect PO behavior, but we still don’t know which tools are most effective for specific types of PO behavior. The PO Toolset helps us do four very important tasks:

  1. Correctly identify the purpose behind PO misbehavior. Misbehaving children give us clues to their purpose. We need to know what clues to look for and what they mean.
  2. Avoid reacting in ways that escalate the behavior or give it a payoff, while effectively redirecting the behavior. Each type of PO behavior has a specific strategy for responding effectively, using tools we already know.
  3. Use what we learn in the PO Toolset to understand and helpfully respond to intentional adult misbehavior, too.
  4. Understand the motives behind lying, how to prevent it, and how to effectively respond to it.


We only choose the PO Toolset when children or adults are misbehaving on purpose. If we respond to intentional misbehavior without first correctly identifying the purpose it serves, we will probably choose an ineffective response. If we use discipline without first breaking misbehavior cycles with the PO Toolset, our discipline is less effective and in some cases is even harmful to the relationship.



PO problems are Parent problems involving misbehavior that seems to be “On purpose.” Parents have seen children consistently behave appropriately, but for some reason they deliberately misbehave. While their behavior seems intentional, children are usually unaware of their subconscious beliefs and behavior choices. They have an underlying need or purpose and falsely believe this misbehavior will help them accomplish that purpose. (Even adult behavior operates on this principle.)


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People mistakenly believe their PO behavior will help them meet a specific purpose, but are usually unaware of their subconscious beliefs and behavior choices.

How  PU  Behavior  Turns  into  PO  Behavior

In the PU Toolset, we learned that strong reactions to PU behavior can turn it into PO behavior. Once this occurs, it is difficult to decide if similar future behavior is PU or PO. The clues lie in the child’s past behavior and current motive. To be sure the behavior is really PO, consider the following questions. 

If we answer “yes” to any of these questions, we are most likely facing PO behavior.

  • Have we seen consistent appropriate behavior in the past?
  • Are we positive the child knows better and has mastered the skill?
  • Did the child seem to be looking for or expecting a reaction?

In addition to strong reactions, PU behavior can also turn into PO behavior if children’s positive efforts fail to meet their purpose. It becomes a survival tactic. For example, if children fail to get attention during a family gathering through positive behavior, they feel discouraged and think, “Well, that didn’t work! What else can I do?” They remember when they or others were able to get someone’s attention. If they think misbehavior will work, children are likely to try it. “Hmm, I remember when my cousin burped real loud. That got people to notice him!” Others, besides parents, can also reinforce mistaken beliefs or negative behavior. If relatives laugh when children burp the first time (when it’s PU behavior) and the parents respond effectively, children still might use the behavior again, since someone noticed them. If parents don’t break PO cycles, they can become habitual problems. 

PU behavior comes naturally, as part of the learning and growth process.

PO behavior is usually learned. People have often seen or heard the behavior work for someone, somewhere, sometime. People are more likely to repeat any behavior they believe will give them a payoff or quick result.

A Personal Story. As a protective service worker, I had a case involving David, four, and his parents, who were total opposites. David’s mother was heavily medicated for depression and very passive. His father was slightly mentally retarded and worked long hours at a minimum-wage job. The few times he was home, he was tired and stressed and physically punished David.

Whenever David didn’t get what he wanted, he would become so out-of-control his mother would eventually give in. Although she complained about David’s behavior, she said it was too hard to stand up to him. When she tried to be firmer, he only became more destructive and defiant. He would resort to whatever drastic measures he needed to get what he wanted. I observed him throwing and breaking things, yelling, and even urinating on the carpet just to get his way.

David only exhibited his demanding behavior and tantrums at home with his parents. With his grandparents, who cared for him frequently, David’s behavior was more acceptable. Obviously, David was “in control” of his parents, but could change his behavior when he chose to. Only his grandparents, who were consistent, firm, and loving, did not have to endure David’s tirades. David had learned to behave in certain ways with certain people to get what he wanted—attention and control. David’s example is extreme, but shows what can happen when parents reward misbehavior or overreact to it.


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We can prevent and effectively respond to PO behavior if we follow the Universal Blueprint. As we discuss each type of PO behavior, we will dip into toolboxes and toolsets we’ve already learned. In PO problems, the importance of following the Universal Blueprint becomes crystal clear. If we skip steps, we miss opportunities to prevent PO behavior or we may even accidentally reinforce it.

We will learn exactly what skills to use to prevent and respond to specific behavior goals, but first, let’s review some important points we’ve already learned that will help us respond to all PO problems.


Step  A:  Prevention  Toolbox

Planning ahead is an important part of preventing PO behavior. If we follow two major philosophies from the Prevention Toolbox, we can prevent many different types of PO problems.

  • Balanced parenting sets limits without overreacting, which can prevent or break PO cycles. An over-controlling parenting style usually escalates PO problems. An under-controlling style usually gives a payoff, because the parent gives in.
  • Discouragement is the root cause of intentional misbehavior. Therefore, it is a logical conclusion that descriptive encouragement (noticing or describing positive behavior) can help prevent it.

Step  B:  Child  Problem  Toolbox

We can use this toolbox as the main source of tools for our response to one specific type of PO behavior and as part of our PASRR response to any PO behavior. We can use the F-A-X process to identify the feelings beneath PO behavior, which offer clues to the goal of the PO behavior. When we look at each goal in detail, we learn which feelings usually cause certain types of PO behavior. If we can help children resolve these feelings, it often de-escalates the situation or even stops the behavior.

Step  C:  Parent  Problem  Toolbox

  • Step C1: Keep Your Cool Toolset prevents us from reacting to misbehavior instead of effectively redirecting it. Gut reactions almost always escalate the PO problem or accidentally give the PO behavior a payoff. We must have enough self-control to be aware of what we feel like doing, but not act on those feelings and temptations. The Keep Your Cool Toolset helps us maintain our self-control. We can then think logically enough to see the clues we need to identify PO behavior and choose the most appropriate response.
  • Step C1: Clear Communication Toolset helps us respond assertively to intentional misbehavior. Passive responses do not address the misbehavior or give it a payoff. Aggressive responses escalate the behavior and cause discouragement and hurt—core issues behind almost all PO behavior. Assertive communication addresses the problem and prevents escalation.
  • Step C2: PO Toolset offers reliable guidelines for identifying and responding to PO behavior. Once we use the Universal Blueprint to correctly identify PO behavior, we are ready to take three new steps (which we learn in detail in the next section):
      • Step C2a: Identify the purpose of the misbehavior.
      • Step C2b: Avoid escalating the situation or giving the misbehavior a payoff.
      • Step C2c: Redirect the behavior by showing children how to meet the purpose through positive behavior.
  • Step C3: Discipline Toolset shows children that PO behavior has a negative effect. We need to be careful, though, not to jump right to this step. If we do, we are simply reacting to the behavior


Chapter  12:  PO  Toolset  (“On  purpose”  misbehavior)                                                                  321


without addressing the real issue children are trying to express. The PO Toolset breaks the PO cycle, which makes our discipline more effective, and prevents repeated PO behavior.

When we use discipline as a first response to PO behavior, it can escalate PO behavior or give it a payoff. Therefore, discipline is only effective after negative misbehavior cycles are broken.

When we see problem behavior, we first decide whether the behavior is PU or PO. If we have consistently seen that children know how to behave but aren’t (PO), we keep our cool and use two or three sentences at the most to move through the first four steps of the PASRR formula. (The Prevention and/ or Child Problem Toolbox and the Clear Communication and PO Toolsets.) These tools usually stop the behavior. If not, we have broken the PO misbehavior cycle, which is essential before revealing discipline.

Let’s look at the three basic steps we take every time we deal with PO behavior. Then we’ll apply these steps by looking at each of the four types of PO behavior, learning the clues that reveal the purpose, and reviewing the best tools for preventing and responding helpfully to that type of PO behavior.  

The steps in the PO Toolset are always the same, but our response will differ depending on the type of PO behavior we identify.

 Step  C2a:  Identify  the  Purpose  of  the  Misbehavior

To answer Question 3 of problem identification, “If misbehavior is ‘on purpose,’ what is the purpose?,” we ask the following three questions to find the clues we need.1

  1. How do I feel when I see this behavior? Since all intentional problem behavior can cause us to feel angry (PO’d), we want to look for the underlying feeling that is causing our anger. Different feelings are clues to the different goals of PO behavior.
  2. What am I tempted to doOur feelings and temptations are clues that help us identify the purpose, but we don’t want to act on them. Gut reactions usually escalate the situation or give a payoff.
  3. If I did this, how would the child reactIf we carried out our gut reaction, would we give the behavior a payoff? Would it escalate the situation? How would the child interpret our actions? Would the behavior get better or worse? Would the short term result have long-term negative consequences?

We can also ask, in a curious, respectful tone, “Could the reason you’re (action) be that you feel ___?”They probably won’t admit it, but their reaction often shows we’ve guessed correctly. We don’t want to confront others about their goals, nor do we always need to check it out. If we don’t see the clues easily, however, it may be helpful to ask.


  Step  C2b:  Avoid  Escalating  the  Situation  or  Giving  a  Payoff

This is a tricky step, because we need to avoid doing the very thing we are tempted to do (the answer to question ii above). This is harder than it sounds! We must keep our cool and resist the urge to react.


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Hard as it is, we need to get in touch with our feelings and temptations, to learn the clues they hold, without acting on those urges.

Step  C2c:  Redirect  the  Behavior

In each case, we want to show children how to meet their purpose through positive behavior. Depending on the purpose we identify, we select specific skills we already know for our response. Sometimes we try to meet the need directly, through our response. Other times, we use problem solving to brain-storm more appropriate ways children can meet their purposes.  

We usually use the same tools to redirect PO behavior that we use to prevent it.

Now, let’s go through each type of PO misbehavior, answering the three questions for each. We will learn which tools (that we’ve already learned) are best for preventing and responding to each type of PO behavior. One tool will have a black star next to it (★). This is usually the best all-around tool to use if you want to prevent or respond to that type of PO behavior. Your goal is to remember three important facts:

      • The different clues to look for when identifying the four types of PO behavior.
      • What reactions to avoid
      • Which tool is usually the best tool to use with each type of PO behavior (the starred tools)