When Rudolf Dreikurs2 identified “The Four Goals of Misbehavior” decades ago, it explained the cause of intentional problem behavior, which led to more effective responses. Several generations have passed and these four goals have been proven to be accurate and the remedies effective.

Each misbehavior goal has a positive and negative side. If people think they cannot meet their purpose through positive behavior, they become discouraged and resort to negative behavior to accomplish their goal. Ideally, we want to prevent negative behavior by teaching children positive ways to meet their behavior goals. The next page shows the four goals and their positive and negative sides.



Some common negative attention-seeking behaviors are interrupting, silliness, whining, emotionally overreacting, or acting “stupid” so someone will spend more time explaining something.



We want to use the Prevention Toolbox when PO misbehavior first appears, or we will become increasingly frustrated and impatient. Then, our nonverbal language says that we do notice them, which gives the child a payoff and escalates the negative attention-seeking behavior.

Meet the positive goal of involvement. People feel accepted and important when they can be involved with, included in, and offer meaningful contributions to a group they identify with, such as their family or peers. They want others to recognize their efforts, contributions, and presence.

When children try to gain this approval through positive behavior and no one notices, they feel discouraged and may settle for negative attention. If other only notice children when they are making bids for attention, the children may believe they are only important if they are the center of attention. 


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                                            THE GOALS OF MISBEHAVIOR





If people believe they have failed to meet this goal, they feel discouraged and change their beliefs and behavior.




INVOLVEMENT: “I want to be a part of the group. I belong when I’m involved and noticed.”
ATTENTION: “They will only notice me if I am the center of attention—and negative attention is better than no attention at all!”
INDEPENDENCE: “I want to make decisions and do things by myself.”
POWER: “Someone is trying to take away my power! If I want to keep it, I must be the one in control.”
JUSTICE: “One good deed deserves another!”
REVENGE: “Someone hurt me! I must hurt others the way I’ve been hurt.”
WITHDRAWAL: “I can handle conflict and failure appropriately. I want reassurance.”
GIVING UP: “I can’t belong because I’m incompetent. Others should expect nothing from me.”


★        Notice and describe children’s good behavior. If we notice children’s positive behavior, they are more likely to behave this way in the future. Unexpected descriptive encouragement helps children feel important, without having to go all-out to get our attention. Describe any effort or improvement, no matter how small. 

Show unconditional love. If children behave poorly and we send the hidden message, “I don’t love you when you misbehave,” they become more discouraged. This leads to more misbehavior.

Spend time with children. If we frequently spend quality time with our children, when they are not demanding our attention, we can prevent some negative attention-seeking behavior. Giving children attention whenever they demand it sends the message that they are entitled to special service. Then, if these children don’t always receive special treatment, they feel discouraged and disappointed and make stronger, more negative bids for attention.

Focus on internal approval and motivation. Descriptive encouragement allows children to tell themselves they are valuable and did a “good job.” It prevents dependency on others’ opinions. Consequently, they don’t need to get constant attention and approval from us.

As peer acceptance becomes more important to children, they can misbehave to gain approval from their peer group. If parents have built self-esteem (rather than ego-esteem) through encouragement (instead of praise) children are less susceptible to negative peer pressure.

Build teamwork. When we order children around, they don’t feel important, just used. We want to focus on teamwork and cooperation and let children know how their contribution is important to the family. Nagging and reminding with “please” and “don’t” can give a payoff through negative attention.


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When the goal is attention, people are usually feeling lonely, unimportant, rejected, or forgotten. Use the F-A-X process to identify and resolve these feelings.



In one sentence, we acknowledge feelings (F-A-X Listening Toolset) and state our needs or concerns (with the Clear Communication Toolset). If there is a reason children can’t have our full attention immediately, we explain this now (if we haven’t already).



When children try to get attention through negative behavior, we usually find the following clues:

  • We feel annoyed or irritated, as though our personal space or rights are being violated. We might even feel exhausted from trying to please (or stop) the child.
  • We are tempted to remind, nag, tell children to “Stop it,” “Quit it,” or Leave me alone!” and push away emotionally, to get some space or regain our sanity.
  • If we do any of these, we don’t break the cycle. The behavior might stop temporarily, because children receive the attention they want, but may be repeated later. Sometimes the behavior will escalate until we give them attention (the payoff). Children might also choose a different behavior to get our attention.


When people misbehave and we notice them (even if it’s to discipline them or to tell them to stop), we are still giving them our attention. If giving attention is a payoff, we want to give the behavior no attention. We can say one thing before we ignore the behavior. Any more attention and we give children a payoff. We want to give quickly use the PASRR formula. “I can tell you feel ___. I feel ___. If you want ___, you can ___ instead.” Then ignore the behavior long enough (usually 15–30 seconds) to send the message, “This behavior does not affect me.” Do not give the silent treatment, roll your eyes, or huff and puff. These are passive-aggressive responses that tell children, “You are getting to me.” The effective way to ignore behavior is to act as though children aren’t doing what they are doing. If, at anytime, children stop that misbehavior or behave appropriately, we can pay attention to them again. For example, a child is demanding you give them something. Clearly and firmly state, “When people want something, they need to say ‘May I please have a ___?’” Then ignore the behavior until they ask appropriately.

Sometimes children escalate their behavior, thinking if they get outrageous enough, we can’t possibly ignore them. In the PU Toolset we learned that ignoring behavior is only appropriate if the behavior is not dangerous. If we must respond to dangerous behavior, do it quickly with few words until they are safe. (For example, move a child in a head-banging tantrum to a pillow or carpet. Remove a dangerous object without comment and go on with your activity.) Children may still be misbehaving, but we can then ignore the behavior completely. Once we have completely ignored the behavior long enough to get our point across and break the cycle (usually about 15–30 seconds) we can move to the next step.



Suggest or brainstorm appropriate ways to get attention or to get involved with another activity. Name a specific time when you can be with children—and follow through. Give attention when children are not expecting or requesting it. Involve them in what you are doing or in an activity they can do nearby.


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Choose a “meaningful” activity, not just something to keep them busy and out of your hair; kids eventually figure out what you are up to and will continue the misbehavior.

A Graduate’s Story. While talking on the phone, I noticed my four-year-old son tormenting the dog. He’d look at me and, when he was sure I was looking, pull the dog’s tail. I kept telling him to stop. Instead, he kept getting worse! He kicked the dog and finally grabbed a butter knife and chased the dog. I dropped the phone, chased him, and spanked him when I finally caught him.

Did this boy get his mother’s attention? How extreme did he have to act to get her attention? Since his misbehavior ended with a payoff, how far do you think he’ll go the next time he wants her attention? No, he’s not destined to be a serial killer or animal mutilator. He probably just believes the phone is his competition or that misbehavior is the best way to get his mom’s attention. As the mother reinforces these beliefs, it becomes harder to change his behavior. At four, however, there’s plenty of time to reprogram the parent and child in this situation. So let’s replay this scene using the skills we just learned.

If you are making a call, plan ahead. Whenever possible, make calls when kids are napping, at school, or busy playing. Let children know you will be on the phone and under what circumstances they may disturb you. (Fire and blood are a minimum bottom line!) If you have young children, take care of their bodily functions (drink, snack, potty, etc.) and get them involved in an independent activity. If they like to be near you, keep a box of quiet toys near the phone. If children are older, let them know they can write you notes.

If you are receiving a call, ask to return the call or ask the caller to hold. Take 30 seconds to 1 minute to do the above activities. Tell children that you will spend time with them and make sure you keep your promise. Avoid taking phone calls during your special time with children (that’s what answering machines are for).

When children behave appropriately, thank them. Describe what they did and how it was helpful and independent. Don’t word it negatively, “Thanks for not ___” This reminds them of misbehavior and gives it attention. Instead, say, “I really appreciate the way you ___.” Usually, these preventive measures work if you don’t talk for unreasonable periods of time (like an hour). It is especially helpful if you immediately spend time with children when you are off the phone, to ask them about their activity and give positive attention when they weren’t asking for it.

If you haven’t planned ahead, you are already on the phone, and children interrupt for an unacceptable reason, you can stop once. Acknowledge their feelings (Step B). Remind them of the phone rules (Step C1) and their options (Step C2). Reassure them that you will spend time with them when you are done. Some additional options are to let them sit on your lap (if they are quiet) or color with them. (Most of us can handle coloring and talking, if we don’t have to stay in the lines.) Make it clear that once you start talking you expect to talk uninterrupted. Explain the value—respect for the caller and your right to talk to others. Acknowledge their rights and suggest alternative activities. Reveal the effect of interrupting—you will ignore them. If the behavior is annoying, but not dangerous, and you have a cordless phone or long extension cord, move out of the room.

A Personal Story. Since I work from home, I get many business calls when my children are home. They had to learn, when they were very young, that Mommy needed to listen to people on the phone. When they fussed, I used all these great ideas and they really worked. Now and then, nothing seemed to help, so I’d sit on the basement stairs to talk. My kids would fuss on the other side, but never opened the door! I have never had a bad problem with this behavior and probably talk more on the phone than many parents.



Some common power behaviors are logical arguments and defiance, either aggressive verbal refusals or passive ignoring. People also use emotions like pouting, tantrums, or crying to get their way. “Defiant compliance” is following an order, but doing a lousy job of it or doing it in an aggressive or hurtful way.


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Meet the positive goal of independence. All people want to feel as though they have some control and independence in their lives. We see this goal of power and independence at every developmental stage of life, adults and seniors included. People assert their independence and personal power in positive ways when they make choices, offer opinions, and do things by themselves.

If people try to exert their independence and personal power, but others resist or try to take their power away, they feel discouraged and frustrated. Rather than give up their control, they may push even harder for control. The toddler and teen years are developmental stages in which achieving independence and a sense of power are primary developmental tasks. Consequently, curious toddlers and teens often experiment with risky behavior and test limits (others’ and their own) to prove they have some power, control, and independence.

The best tools for preventing power struggles are in the Cooperation and Independence Toolsets. These skills can prevent and redirect power struggles.

Model humbleness. It takes maturity to admit when we are wrong and accept responsibility for our mistakes. Openly model this. Some people, whether by personality or conditioning, believe they must always be right or never to blame. When we insist on pointing out faults or gaining confessions, they become more defensive. Focus on lessons and solutions, not blame.

Avoid bribery. It is manipulative, to control others. Over time, children resent others controlling them and use defiant compliance, logical arguments, and deals to get what they want.

★        Offer choices within bottom-line limits. Keep priorities in line by picking and choosing “battles” carefully. When children have choices, they can assert their independence without starting power struggles or violating our bottom-line rules.

Don’t Say “Don’t.” Any time we approach people with negative attitudes or words, we are more likely to get negative responses. “You can’t do that” challenges some people to try it, “Oh yeah? Watch me!” They’ll test to see if we mean it, what will happen if they do it, and if we follow through with our threats. Instead, we describe what others can do or the behavior we want to see.

No No’s. “No” often results in logical arguments, “But why?”, “But I . . .” Instead, we can give a conditional “Yes, when . . .” or “Sure, if . . .” State the reason or give information in a few words. Acknowledge feelings and offer acceptable alternatives.

Use humor. If children try to bait us into an argument, we can respond in a light-hearted tone of voice. A smile, tilted head, and glance from the corner of the eye says, “I don’t think so.” If, for example, we ask children to turn off a light and they say “I did,” we use humor in several ways. “Light!” With a smile, “I must be crazy! I was just up there and saw it on! The electric elves must have turned it back on!” We can use, “Please,” but only once, to be polite.

Routines and family rules prevent many power struggles. When we start routines in the early years, they become habits. When family rules are clear, all we have to do is acknowledge feelings and briefly restate (or ask others to repeat) the rule.

Teach skills. If children are frustrated, angry, or express opinions disrespectfully, we can teach assertive communication skills. We allow children to have their feelings or opinions, but teach them how to express them respectfully.

Let them do things by themselves. Children can become defiant or resistant when they think we are trying to take over. Offer a few quick tips and let go.

Ask their opinion. This prevents power struggles, because we consider their needs when formulating a win/win plan. When children argue, “but . . .,” they are trying to express their opinions. We can’t


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always give them exactly what they want, but listening to them with respect, stating our limits, and seeking a win/win solution will usually prevent defiance and resistance.

Nudge, but don’t push. It is easy to get into power struggles over PU behavior by pushing children too hard. Many parents find potty training, mealtime, and bedtime are daily battles. It takes practice to know when we are nudging or motivating and when we are pushing. Usually, if we get resistance, we’ve crossed the line. Get to the bottom line and shift the focus to choices.



If people are challenging our power and authority, they are usually feeling frustrated, disappointed or out of control of the situation, too. They may not know how to get power in positive ways or have already tried and think their efforts failed. If people want something and can’t have it, acknowledge their disappointment and frustration. Sometimes, this alone prevents power struggles.



If we follow the Universal Blueprint, we have probably already stated our reasons for not allowing children to do what they want. Children don’t have to like what we ask them to do, but if we offer them some control or listen to their feelings first, they may cooperate, grudgingly. If they don’t, keep your cool and decide whether your limits are too controlling. If they aren’t, we can say we are unwilling to argue or debate the issue. We don’t want to spend too much time at this step, emphasizing our feelings and needs. It easily turns into a lecture, which escalates power struggles and shuts down communication. Use one sentence and move to the next step to stop and redirect the power struggle.



When children resist requests, make power plays by testing us, or we’ve been sucked into a power struggle, we usually find the following clues:

i.   We feel as though the person is challenging our authority or we are in a battle of wills.
ii.  We are tempted to either exert our authority with a power play (threats, demands, punishment) or give in to their demands to avoid conflict.
iii. If we do any of these, we don’t break the cycle. If we exert our authority, it escalates the power struggle. The more we push, the more they resist. If we force a “parent wins/child loses” outcome, children often rebel and feel hurt, which brings on revenge. If we allow a “child wins/parent loses” outcome, we give children a payoff. “It worked!” They will try at least this hard, and two steps more, to get their way the next time.


Fighting and giving in are both “win/lose” outcomes. (Actually they are “lose/lose” in the long-run.) Avoid doing both. Logical arguments also rarely accomplish much. If there is nothing for others to struggle against, it breaks the cycle. We often feel we are “between a rock and a hard place” and have no other options. You do—a balanced approach—choices within limits.



Most of the tools listed in the “prevent the behavior” section also help break power struggles and redirect misbehavior. Once we make our point, if children do not cooperate, we first want to shift the focus to the choices (the child’s “win”) within bottom-line limits (the parent’s “win”). If the child persists, we make it clear that we are willing to listen further if they are willing to put forth an effort to


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solve the problem. “We’ve discussed this problem for quite awhile. You’ve come up with several options. I’m sure you’ll decide how you want to handle it.” Then we may need to emotionally and/or physically disengage by walking away. If they follow, they are now trying to get our attention. Shift to the appropriate strategy—ignore them. (This is why it is so important to control our emotions and keep our logic online. 

The goal of intentional behavior can shift. If we aren’t on the ball, the situation can mutate into another goal before we realize it!)

Only reveal discipline or follow through with it after there has been a break in the power struggle. If we discipline in the middle of the power struggle, it turns our discipline into punishment. When discipline results in a “parent wins/child loses” outcome, children feel hurt, which can start revenge cycles.

A Personal Story. Chris has particular taste in clothes. He knows what he wants and doesn’t like others trying to talk him into buying anything different. My dad and stepmother, after taking him shopping, once joked, “We’d rather throw our money off a cliff than take him shopping.” I can usually shop with him, but have to be on-the-ball for power struggles.

When Chris was 11, he needed a winter coat. I was willing to go to three stores of his choice in our local area. He would need to agree, however, to pick one coat from those stores. (Step A: Prevent the problem.) At the first store, we found hundreds of choices, so I said, “With all these coats, I’m sure you can find something you will like.” He wanted a particular name-brand and styled coat. (This was a first! I could tell he was nearing the teen years.) We only found a boys’ size in an ugly green and a man’s size that cost nearly $100. Again, I had to adjust my bottom line. I said, “I’m willing to get any coat in this store that is less than $50.”

He almost got the $50 ugly green coat, but put it back and started getting resistant. He was trying to bait me into an argument or to make the decision for him. I knew that no matter what I picked, he would complain about it. Things were starting to escalate and he was anxious to go home. I said, “Look, there are plenty of coats to pick from here. I know you won’t find the one you really want (Step B: Acknowledge feelings), but I bet you can find something you like. I’m going to look for a shirt over there. The next time I see you, I want to see a coat that costs less than $50 in your hand. Then we’ll go home.” (Step C1: Set limits with Clear Communication Toolset and Step C2: Redirect misbehavior.) As I walked away, he headed back toward the coats, mumbling “I’ll pick one out, but I won’t wear it.” I shopped where I could keep an eye on him, for safety reasons, but stayed out of sight.

In a few minutes Chris walked up with a soft, brown coat that cost $40. He acted only somewhat satisfied, so I confirmed his decision and my unwillingness to return it or go somewhere else. He confirmed this was the coat he wanted. The next day was a cool (but not cold) day and, to my surprise, he wore his new coat to his soccer game. The whole team took turns wearing it on the sideline. It ended up being one of his all-time favorite coats.



Revengeful behavior takes many forms. Aggressive tactics can involve name-calling or physically acting out. Passive-aggressive tactics are the silent treatment or secretly damaging or hiding something of value to the person who hurt them.



Meet the positive goal of justice. All people have some sense of justice and fairness. When people receive a kind gesture, they often want to repay the kindness. When people feel wronged, they think something should happen to “balance the scale.” Few people have the assertive communication skills to respond respectfully, so they even the score with another unkind word or deed. Some people will even attempt to hurt themselves (drugs, attempted suicide, risky behavior) to hurt others (“They’ll be sorry”) or to express how much they are hurting inside.


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        Revengeful behavior is usually the result of hurt feelings or anger over a lost power struggle. Acknowledge feelings before setting limits, to prevent hurt feelings. Use choices within limits to avoid win/lose power struggles. Teach children assertive communication and problem-solving skills, so they can express their hurt respectfully. If we defend ourselves, argue, or say they are “mouthing off,” they will conclude that assertiveness doesn’t work, feel more hurt and discouraged, and resort to stronger revenge tactics.



If the goal is revenge, people are usually feeling hurt and angry. When we listen to the hurt, people may not resort to revengeful behavior to show the hurt. When revenge has already occurred, listening rebuilds trust and problem solving helps people resolve their hurt and reach healthier solutions without revenge.



When people do something mean on purpose, it usually causes an immediate angry reaction. It is vital to keep your cool and stop this reaction, but identify the feelings behind it, which are clues to the goal of the revengeful behavior. Not reacting is very different from not asserting our right to be treated with respect. Later in our response, we will address the negative effect of hurtful behavior and brainstorm more appropriate, healthy ways to express or resolve the hurt. If we skip Step B, Acknowledging feelings, rush through the steps, or spend too much time expressing our hurt, we are not addressing or resolving the real issue behind the revengeful behavior—the hurt feelings.



When someone does something mean to us, we usually find the following clues:

i.   We feel hurt (either physical or emotional), disgust, or disbelief.
ii.  We are tempted to retaliate or show our hurt. We want to punish the person for hurting us or use guilt and shame to make the person feel bad. Verbal or nonverbal responses such as shock, crying, passively withdrawing, or getting angry all say, “You hurt me.
iii. If we do any of these, we continue the revenge or give the behavior a payoff. Children interpret immediate discipline as punishing revenge. Children then find a way to match this new hurt, which escalates the revenge cycle. Shame and guilt makes children feel more discouraged, which brings on new forms of intentional misbehavior. Any retaliation will escalate a revenge cycle. When parents show their hurt, they give revengeful behavior a payoff. Since children wanted to even the score by hurting back, they think, “Yes! It worked!” This reinforces the mistaken belief that revenge is an effective way to achieve justice.


We must break revenge cycles before we address the misbehavior. Power and revenge cycles take two people. If we don’t participate, we can break the cycle. We may need to walk away temporarily to get our emotions and thoughts together. This will prevent children from seeing our hurt. This is a temporary delay, to show the behavior had no effect, not a passive withdrawal that never deals with the problem. Once we get our attitude and logic online, we can respond helpfully.



We’ve already learned how to respond to hurt feelings with the F-A-X Listening Toolset. Responding to revengeful behavior with listening is the hardest tool to use in The Parent’s Toolshop. When someone is

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mean to us, it is not our natural reaction to say, “Wow, you must be really angry with me right now. Tell me how you feel.” This tool asks us to “turn the other cheek,” which means “return kindness for hurt,” not “do nothing” or “invite more hurt.” Until we acknowledge and resolve their hurt, children will continue to seek ways to express their feelings through revenge.

If we follow the Universal Blueprint, we can rebuild trust. Take Steps B (Acknowledge feelings) and C1 (Set limits) in one sentence, “I can tell you are really hurt and angry, but I don’t appreciate being spoken to like that.” If we need to apologize, do so now. Quickly move to the PO Toolset, because the guidelines for revenge remind us to spend more time at the Child Problem Toolbox. Focus on feelings (“Tell me how you feel about what happened.”), Ask helpful questions (“Do you understand why I did that?”), and X-amine possible solutions (“What do you think we can do, instead?”). Model forgiveness. Once we resolve their hurt, children will be ready to listen to us. Then we can assert our feelings or expectations, “It’s okay to be angry, but I am more willing to listen if people express themselves respectfully.”

If children use dangerous behavior for revenge, we may need to gently restrain young children or temporarily distance ourselves from older children until everyone cools down. If we need to do either of these, we use the statements just outlined while taking action. For example, a young child hits a parent. The parent says the statements above while firmly but gently taking the child’s hands, to keep them away from the parent’s body. With older children, the parent acknowledges feelings and sets limits while walking away. “I can tell you are really angry, but I will not subject myself to this treatment. I’m willing to listen when you’ve calmed down. I’m going to calm down, too. Let me know when you want to work this out.” The parent disengages, physically and emotionally, until both have cooled off.

Once we address the hurt that caused the revengeful behavior, we need to deal with the way the child expressed the hurt. We can simply point out the emotional consequences of revengeful behavior using the Clear Communication Toolset. “When people feel hurt, they often hurt back, which only creates more hurt and doesn’t solve the problem.” If children damage something, we can show them how to make amends (Step C3: Reveal discipline). If possible, we want to use parent/child problem solving to reach this agreement. If we tell them what they will do, we can start a new power struggle or revenge cycle. The trust level is still shaky, so we need to carefully choose our attitudes, words, and actions.

A Personal Story. Before I decided the best way to set allowances, I proposed a new system to my children. The allowance system was something like one dollar per year of age. The child had to split the money three ways, a third each for savings, spending, and family “taxes,” which are used to fund family activities. To pay this much, I concluded, they’d have to do more chores. After calculating the actual dollar figures, Chris realized he would be doing more chores for less spending money. I had regrettably not done the math, but didn’t want to give up the idea of trying a good way to teach responsibility. Chris saw my idea as a new way to control how much work he did and how he spent his money.

I tried to avoid a power struggle by offering a choice between three allowance options. Amber chose the new system and I was pleased. Chris complained that I rarely paid him his allowance anyway (this was true, we rarely had enough left over after bills). The discussion was dragging on, so I pushed a final decision. It started a power struggle, so I tried to disengage. I stated the bottom line, “You need to pick one of the choices.” Chris kept trying to argue. I stopped the discussion at that point and started to walk out of the room. Chris said something like, “Why should I do more chores, you never do anything extra for me.” Now I was offended. I decided to get out of this before I got angrier. I concluded, “If you don’t want to do chores to help the family, then I’m not willing to do chores for you. You can do your own laundry for a while.” I did not say this in an angry way and, in my mind, the discipline made logical sense. 

Later that week, my kids began packing for a weekend trip to Grandma’s. When they needed clean clothes, I offered to wash some for Amber. I thought if I did Chris’ laundry I wouldn’t be following through. I said, “Chris, since I’m not doing your laundry this week, you’ll need to do it yourself.”

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No sooner had the words passed my lips than I heard the revenge in my plan. Here it was, a week later, that I realized that I was in a revenge cycle. I was surprised, because I wasn’t feeling angry or hurt at that exact moment. I asked myself, “If this is revenge, who felt hurt and why?” I replayed the entire allowance discussion in my mind. Only then did I realize that I had forced a win/lose solution to the power struggle and was using discipline for revenge.

I called Chris into the room. We sat together and I apologized for using the laundry to get back at him. I acknowledged his feelings about the allowance being unfair. I told him my discipline was inappropriate and canceled it and the new system of allowances. We decided to do allowances as we always had. I emphasized that I was willing to do his laundry for the trip, but he insisted on doing it anyway! We hugged each other and confirmed all was okay. While I made several mistakes in this situation, I learned a lot. I recognize revenge almost immediately, now, and know the guidelines for redirecting it really work.


Withdrawal/Giving  up

Children who have become deeply discouraged may finally give up. They believe they are helpless and incompetent. They give up so others won’t expect anything from them. This behavior is most common when learning a task or managing a responsibility. It can also occur when children have been negatively labeled and give up, believing they are worthless.



Meet the positive goal of withdrawal. There are times when it is appropriate and healthy to withdraw from conflict or avoid frustration or disappointment. This withdrawal may be temporary, until the timing is better or an effective response can be planned.

Sometimes, when people feel particularly threatened or discouraged, they withdraw more than necessary—they give up. If a task seems to too demanding or past attempts to resolve a conflict failed, people sometimes simply choose to quit trying. At these times, withdrawal may be unhealthy.

       When children are so discouraged that they’ve given up, use descriptive encouragement and teach skills. These are the tools that can prevent and redirect “giving up” behavior.     

Teach when withdrawal is appropriate. It is healthy to walk away from fights and arguments where continued involvement will escalate the situation. There are times when it is healthy to accept the things we cannot change and change the things we can (like our attitude or behavior). We want to teach this value and skill to our children.

Show unconditional love. Make it clear that children don’t have to achieve anything for us to love them. Children need to know we love them, even when they fail or aren’t perfect.

Focus on what’s right not wrong. Avoid “constructive criticism.” Give credit for any effort children make or improvements they show, no matter how small.

Describe, don’t praise. Since praise adds pressure, it usually backfires when children are deeply discouraged and have given up. More pressure does not motivate them to try again, but descriptive encouragement can.

Be gentle with mistakes. Focus on what children learn from their mistakes. Avoid perfectionism. Instead, encourage children to strive for their personal best.

Let children do things by themselves. Notice the difficulty of the task and be supportive, but don’t rescue them.

Nudge, but don’t push. Children give up when we push too hard or their goal can change to power. Just offer choices or quick tips. Don’t push children to continue a voluntary activity if they truly aren’t

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interested. They may need to finish a commitment period, but then let them choose whether to continue. If they are still interested but discouraged, give encouraging nudges. This helps them weather the difficult times that naturally occur when learning a new skill.

Teach skills. Break the task into small steps. Let children try to do things their way. Offer descriptive encouragement at every step.



When the goal is giving up, people usually feel discouraged, frustrated, or confused. When we acknowledge these feelings, we give the feeling a name. This reassures children that their feelings are normal and it is okay to feel it. Now they can focus on resolving the cause of the feeling.



When we give up, we don’t reach our parenting goals, to develop courage, self-esteem, and confidence in our children. In one sentence, we want to acknowledge children’s feelings, maybe state the negative effect of giving up, and quickly move to the next step to redirect the behavior.



When children have given up we usually find the following clues:

i.   We feel discouraged, frustrated, or at a loss about what to do. We may start believing the child really isn’t capable.
ii.  We are tempted to give up on children or do things for them. “Here, let me show you, it’s really easy once you get the hang of it.” Sometimes we agree that they aren’t up to the task. “Maybe you’re not cut out for sports.” We might try to motivate them by pointing out what they could be doing differently (constructive criticism) or judge what they’ve done and reassure them of their potential. “But you’re really good at that.” “If you try a little harder, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it.” This implies they haven’t already tried hard.
iii. If we do any of these, it sends the message, “You’re right, you can’t do this.” Children feel incompetent and will not try harder. They will continue the behavior until we expect nothing from them and relieve them of their responsibilities. If we pressure with praise or push too hard, it starts power struggles or increases their commitment to give up.



Avoid both criticism and praise. Children who have given up usually agree with criticisms and argue with or deny compliments. They insist they are incapable or “no good.” If we discipline children who are already so discouraged they’ve given up, they withdraw even more. These tactics escalate the situation. Payoffs come from rescuing. Rescuing protects children from the possibility of failure— and the ecstasy of success. If we take over, we only confirm their incompetence and give children an easy way out. If we suggest trying something they will be better at, children learn that people should only participate in activities where they can be the best, instead of learning skills or having fun. If we allow them to quit, we teach that it’s okay to give up on commitments, responsibilities, or tasks.



Use the tools listed in the “prevent the behavior” section. Find an area of strength to encourage. Use descriptive, observable facts and avoid value judgements like “good job.” Break tasks into small steps and shift the focus to a different step, one they might find more success with. We can suggest “taking a break and coming back to it,” but not imply they can “give up” on the task.

Chapter  12:  PO  Toolset  (“On  purpose”  misbehavior)                                                                  333


Acknowledge the difficulty of the task and express faith in their abilities. Focus on what they are learning or what they enjoy about the activity, rather than whether they succeed. Allow them to experience mistakes that aren’t dangerous. If we help, ask if they want a demonstration, then work side by side, doing the task together. We do not want to take over or do it completely for them. We also want to be careful not to make the task look easy for us to do. Express the difficulty we have, or had when we first learned how to do the task. Instead of commenting on the quality of their job, we can always point out positive qualities we admire, such as a willingness to try and perseverance. 

A Personal Story. Chris’ teacher called to say he had failed one test because he hadn’t studied and was making careless mistakes on homework. She acknowledged this was not a big deal, since his grade was still in the “B” range, but just wanted to bring it to my attention. When I told Chris about the phone call and asked him how he felt about his grades, he said, “I don’t care.” Chris often talks about schoolwork like it’s no big deal, but he’s actually quite self-motivated and disciplined, so I asked what he learned from not studying. In a defiant tone of voice, he replied, “Nothing.” I was surprised by this uncaring, almost hostile attitude. I was tempted to say, “You’d better start caring!” But his uncharacteristic behavior tipped me off that this was an “onion.” I shifted into listening mode. At first, he didn’t share anything and gave one-word, “nothing” answers to my questions. I just acknowledged, “So right now you don’t care about that, huh?” He was not giving me many clues to work with. As I clarified the few details he did volunteer, I mentioned the teacher’s concern for him. He began to cry and poured out details about times when the teacher singled him out and criticized him. She had called him into the hallway (which is normally only done when someone is in trouble) and said, “I’m so disappointed in you. You could have gotten an “A” on this test. If you’d just put a little more effort into studying, you could be doing better work.” Chris thought she wasn’t giving him credit for his efforts and other good grades. She also moved his seat (which isn’t normally done unless someone is causing trouble), because she thought he was having trouble concentrating near several disruptive students.

I acknowledged how it could appear as though the teacher was picking on him. I tried to present the teacher’s perspective, that she liked him so much that she wanted the best for him. She didn’t realize her words were discouraging or that he had misinterpreted her actions. He was unwilling to discuss or work out the problem directly with the teacher, choosing instead to hold a grudge and glare at her during class. We discussed his goals and how he felt about his grades. His self-motivation was shrinking and he was too angry and discouraged to do anything about it.

Since he wasn’t willing to meet with the teacher and the problem was continuing, I carefully considered whether to get involved. I made a few phone calls to friends who had children in his class and asked some open-ended questions, without sharing any details that would violate Chris’ confidentiality or make the teacher look bad. They were able to get information from their children that confirmed everything had happened just as Chris described it. I decided to talk to the teacher, positive that her intentions were caring, but her words were unintentionally discour-aging. Once I explained how Chris saw and interpreted her words and actions, she understood how he had misunderstood her intentions. She assured me how much she liked, respected, and admired Chris. I told her Chris was the one who needed to hear that from her. She thanked me for bringing the problem to her attention and said she’d learned an important lesson about using positive ways to express concerns in the future. She suggested apologizing, which I thought would help, but I asked her not to do it alone in the hall.