The guidelines we’ve learned and stories we’ve read emphasize several important points about PO misbehavior:

  • Deliberate is the key word in identifying PO behavior. Children know better and have the skills to behave properly, but deliberately misbehave.
  • PU behavior can turn into PO behavior, if it gets a reaction or payoff.


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  • Children can use emotions, rather than behavior, to meet any of the four goals. For example, children can “turn on the tears” to get attention or their way. They can cry to get revenge, hoping parents will feel bad for “making kids cry.” They can cry out of despair and discouragement. Parents need to correctly identify why children are crying: to express sadness (a Child problem), communicate needs (PU), or when tears seem forced or insincere (PO). Then they will know how best to respond.
  • Misbehavior might not immediately stop. It takes time for both parents and children to break the habit of getting hooked in these cycles. Sometimes children may be testing to see if they can get the predictable response or might want a face-saving way to prove they  stopped the behavior, not us. We can walk away and give children time to think about what we said and change their behavior without an audience.
  • If we don’t break power or revenges cycles before we discipline, it turns the discipline into a power play or revenge tactic. Don’t immediately discipline a behavior just for the sake of responding quickly. It can make matters worse. Don’t skip steps, just move through them quickly.
  • At whatever point we realize we are facing PO behavior, we begin following the PO a-b-c identification process and PASRR response formula. It’s better to get back on track than to continue in an ineffective direction, just for the sake of following through on what we said when we were hooked into the misbehavior.
  • Giving up behavior always involves passive behavior, but passive misbehavior does not always serve the goal of giving up. Passive misbehavior can also serve other goals. We must look at the a-b-c clues (“How do we feel,” etc.), to correctly identify the true purpose. Children can get attention by acting shy. They can passively exert power by procrastinating, forgetting, partially completing a task, or claiming to have forgotten. The silent treatment is a passive form of revenge.
  •  One behavior can serve more than one purpose. For example, when children don’t clean their rooms, we must first eliminate the possibility that the behavior is really PU. Do they have the skills and consistently shown us they can do the chore? If so, and we are sure it’s PO, they might be seeking attention to get us involved. They could also be exerting power, challenging us to “make them.” If parents use power to force the issue, children might stuff things under their beds in “defiant compliance.” They might refuse to clean their room as a pay back for a hurt. Children may feel so overwhelmed and incapable they give up.
    The only way to tell which goal it is in each instance is to consider the three clue-finding statements. As we respond, the goal can change and the next time we see the same behavior, the goal might be different. With time, we see the clues more quickly and can respond more helpfully.
  • The purpose behind misbehavior can shift. If children try to get attention and it doesn’t work, they might try to use power. The most common shift is a lost power struggle turning into a revenge cycle. We need to stay in touch with our feelings and how we are tempted to react (but not act on them) so we can see the clues that tell us the goal has shifted. When we notice a goal shift, we adjust our response accordingly. (You can see why keeping our cool, staying logical, and regular practice are all so important. That’s why we waited so long to learn this toolset! We use every tool we’ve learned so far!)
  • Each goal represents a deeper level of discouragement. The revenge and giving up stories are good illustrations of how goals shifted as the child became more discouraged. A child who is seeking attention is less discouraged than a child seeking revenge. Children who have given up are the most discouraged of all. This does not mean, however, that shifts in behavior always follow a

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predictable pattern: attention to power, to revenge, and finally giving up. Sometimes, when we try to walk away from a power struggle, children follow us, trying to get our attention! Again, look for the clues so you know when and how the goal has changed.



We’ve been talking mostly about situations that are clearly or exclusively PO problems. What about situations where PO behavior is just one part of the total picture?


C/PO  Problems

Whenever there is a Child problem, we always want to address that part of the problem first. The Child problem is often the real issue underlying the PO behavior—if we resolve it, the PO behavior might disappear. Other times, there are two different problems in one situation. We still want to resolve the Child problem first, unless we must respond to the PO behavior immediately. If this is the case, move through the Universal PASRR steps quickly, making sure to include Step B: Acknowledge feelings (Child Problem Toolbox). Once we’ve taken care of the immediate PO problem, we want to come back to the Child problem and resolve it.

Some homework and school problems illustrate important points about C/PO combination problems. When children don’t do homework on purpose, the goal could be any of the four purposes of misbehavior. Children can “act stupid” so teachers (or parents) will pay attention and spend time helping them. Children might also want to prove that they are in control, by doing nothing. “You can’t make me do my homework.” Power can also be the goal if children want to see if giving up will make us take over and do the work for them. After all, if someone else is willing to take responsibility for remembering homework or thinking of answers, why not let them? Children might believe giving up on homework will “punish” a disliked teacher or hurt parents. If good grades are important to a parent and children want to hurt the parent, getting poor grades is revenge. Most often, however, children do not do their homework because they are extremely discouraged and have given up.

A Personal Story. The only “F” I ever got was in fourth grade math. The teacher was grumpy and mean and had flunked my brother five years earlier. Because I was left-handed, she wouldn’t help me learn to write in cursive. She showed everyone the right-handed way and told me, “Just do it the opposite way.” If I asked for help, she said, “Figure it out.”

I was discouraged because I wasn’t getting the help (attention) I was legitimately entitled to. I finally concluded that if she was going to treat me this way, I wasn’t going to do the homework she asked me to do. This would “show her.” I did all my homework—except math.

I hadn’t really thought about report card day. When I saw the “F,” I thought about changing it to an “A,” but knew it would be too obvious. I prepared myself for my parents’ reaction. Fortunately, my parents knew how to do effective listening and problem solving by this time. My mom commented on all my As and Bs first. I knew she wasn’t blind and actually enjoyed a few moments of pride. She asked me how I felt about the F and what I thought happened. I told her my logic. Instead of lecturing me, she asked open-ended questions such as, “Who really suffered when you didn’t do your homework? What other options do you have for dealing with this teacher?” We both knew this teacher wouldn’t change, so my plan was just to survive that year.

I realized on my own, without a parental lecture, that I was only hurting myself by failing math. I decided to do the best I could in math—for me. The following grading period, I brought my grade up to a “C.” By fifth grade, I was on honor roll. Had my parents punished me for the grade, I might not have learned this lesson. Knowing me, a power and control child who was already discouraged, I might have resorted to another type of misbehavior.

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C/PU/PO  Problems

In most cases, problem behavior is either PU or PO, but rarely both at the same time. Usually, the reason children are misbehaving is because they don’t have the skills to express themselves appropriately and choose misbehavior to express their goals. The real cause of the behavior is PU, a lack of skills.

A Graduate’s Story. Jackie, eight, is my youngest daughter. I admit to spoiling my last child, my “baby.” I was planning to be away from home for a week and told Jackie ahead of time so she would have time to prepare for my absence. Jackie was upset about my impending vacation. She became moody, short-tempered, and smart-alecky. She even yelled at me, “You don’t love me! You wouldn’t leave me if you loved me!”

What type of problem is this? The core of this onion is a Child problem, Jackie’s sense of loss and abandonment. At eight, she doesn’t understand why her mother must leave and is taking the decision personally. She feels hurt by her mother’s decision, so she uses guilt trips for revenge (PO) and to express her feelings the only way she knows (PU). Since Jackie has shown that she can behave properly and has not acted this way before, her behavior seems deliberate. When we look further, however, we see the underlying issues. Instead of reacting to the PO behavior, Karen needs to help Jackie work through her feelings of loss, anger, and hurt (Child Problem Toolbox). If Karen can teach Jackie how to express herself appropriately (PU and Independence Toolsets), then Jackie won’t have to use PO behavior to meet her needs in the future.

Always try to resolve the problem that is closest to the center of the onion. If we resolve this problem, the more surface behaviors and issues sometimes take care of themselves or are much more manageable.


Parental reactions can follow the attention → power → revenge → giving up cycle and can serve all four goals. Some frustrated and angry parents yell or spank to get a child’s attention, although it doesn’t serve any positive purpose. Parents frequently discipline or give orders to exert their power. Parents use punishment, which makes children suffer for their mistakes, to get revenge. Some parents give in or give up, just to avoid conflict. All these approaches escalate the misbehavior cycle or give children a payoff. Instead of repeating unhelpful cycles, we can identify our goal and choose healthier responses to meet that goal.

In troubled adult relationships, like unhappy marriages, adults may try to get people’s attention, to let them know there is a problem. If their polite and positive attempts fail, they may use louder, more negative ways to get attention. If these attempts fail, adults often argue or make threats, to see if they can get their way (power). If they lose the power struggle, they feel hurt and seek revenge. “You’ll see how it feels to be treated the way you treat me.” As the revenge cycle continues, both parties resort to more extreme behaviors and the relationship quickly deteriorates. If adults don’t heal hurts at this level and use healthier conflict resolution skills, irreparable damage to the relationship can occur. Finally, when adults experience nothing but emotional pain, they give up. Couples divorce, but if children are involved, they often use the children to continue their power and/or revenge cycles.

When adults want to get another person’s attention, we can use the Cooperation or Clear Communication Toolsets. If they ignore our attempts, we can try to negotiate a win/win agreement. If others use PO behavior with us, recognize what’s really going on, avoid escalating the situation or giving a payoff, and respond in ways that break these cycles. Notice positive behavior, no matter how small, when people aren’t expecting or demanding it. If others try to argue with us, we can set limits for ourselves (what we are willing to do or endure) and disengage. If we recognize revengeful behavior, acknowledge the other

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person’s hurt and rebuild trust. If we are totally discouraged, we need to encourage ourselves and the other person. Positive, encouraging, or empathetic statements can have amazing, almost miraculous, results. Sometimes all efforts fail and we need to end a relationship in the healthiest way possible, for our own safety, self-respect, and inner peace.



When children lie, parents must first ask themselves “Why?” What purpose did the lie serve? We can avoid giving the lie a payoff or making the situation worse with our reaction. Instead, we show children how to meet this goal without lying. These three steps are consistent with the PO Toolset.


Motives  for  Lying

Lying is intentional behavior and the motives fit the four purposes of misbehavior.3 These motives apply to both children’s and adult lies. Here is a list of some types of lies and their related goals:

Lying for Attention

  • Getting a reaction. Exaggerated stories and imaginative stories get people’s attention.
  • Acceptance by peer group. Sometimes, children lie to do something with their peers they know is forbidden. Other times, adults question children about their peers’ wrongdoing and children feel pressured by their peers to lie. Research shows that children almost always tell the truth when interviewed alone, but almost none tell the truth when interviewed in pairs! Parents need to acknowledge the difficulty of telling the truth at these times. A quick reminder about the value of honesty and possible effects of lying are helpful, before pressing children further.

Lying for Power

  • Fooling people. People feel powerful if they tell a false story and the listener believes it.
  • Avoiding punishment/lecture. When there is a problem, parents may angrily ask, “Did you do this?” If children say “yes,” they know they will definitely get in trouble. If they say “no,” they have some chance of not getting in trouble. Guess which choice most make? 
    Fear of harsh or unjust punishment and long lectures is the main reason people lie. 
  • Protecting privacy. Children may lie when parents ask prying questions. If lying works, children prove they have the power to prevent parents from knowing everything. (Remember the “Respect Their Privacy” section in Chapter 6, “Independence Toolset”?)
  • Getting something that’s forbidden. When people think a request will be denied, they may sneak or lie to get it. Some examples are shoplifting, having an unchaperoned party, or experimenting with cutting one’s own hair. These lies usually need a planned alibi. When parents catch these lies, they are particularly angry, because the child had to plan the misdeed and the lie.

Lying  for  Revenge

  •  Getting justice for a hurt. When people are hurt, they lose respect for and trust in the person who hurt them and may lie to “even the score.”

Lying because the person has given up

  •  Feeling discouraged with honesty. When others don’t believe truthful statements, people may give up and lie.


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Lying  and  Development

There are five stages of understanding and practicing truth and lying, but age is only one factor. Not everyone reaches the final stage and many adults never go beyond the second stage. When people feel strong emotions, they may revert to an earlier stage.

    1. By age 4, children are honest (or lie) to get their own way, get rewards and to avoid punishment.
    2. By age 5 or 6, children are honest (or lie) to please adults. Children may tell adults what they think the adults want to hear. If the lies during these first two stages work and children get their way often, they can become manipulative or more chronic liars.
    3. Around ages 6–8, children’s honesty (and lying) is motivated by what’s in it for them. At this stage, if adults around them model lying, children will believe that lying is okay.
    4. Around ages 8–12, children are honest (or lie) so others will think well of them. At this age, children also shift their focus from wanting to please parents to wanting the approval of their friends. They may lie if they think their peers expect them to.
    5. Ages 12 and older are usually honest because they want to be good citizens or lie because it is a habit.

Two age periods are especially important. One is somewhere around three or four, when children can tell a deliberate lie. Adolescence is the other crucial period, because teens are capable of understanding that lying destroys trust. Whether teens reach the final stage of learning honesty depends on several factors: how well parents handle their teens’ need for privacy, whether they grant their teens more responsibility over new areas of their lives, and how they react to the truthful (but difficult to hear) statements their teens share.


Parental  Influences  on  Lying

Children who lie most often have parents who also lie frequently: Lying to the traffic cop, asking children to lie for parents (“Tell (the telephone caller) I’m not here.”), or not admitting their mistakes. Such commonplace deceits often go unnoticed—by parents, that is.

Parents usually lie to avoid conflict, to protect children from an unpleasant or dangerous situation, to benefit themselves or to be tactful. There are ways to be both truthful in these situations. “My dad can’t come to the phone right now. Please call later.” (Actually, adults should speak for themselves, instead of using children to help them avoid uncomfortable situations!)

It is also important to teach children the difference between “good” secrets and “bad” secrets. “Good” secrets are surprises that make people feel good (as in birthday gifts). “Bad” secrets make the secret-keeper feel uncomfortable or hide something others should know (as in sexual abuse).

Parents also lie to their children to protect them from knowing about potentially upsetting situations. Once parents lie about these situations, they must continue lying to answer children’s questions and keep the false story alive. (See the “Children and Stress” section of Chapter 9, “Keep Your Cool Toolset,” for more information about discussing these topics with children.)

A Personal Story. In 1995, a four-year-old girl was missing. The girl’s picture filled television screens and the front pages of newspapers. Children could hardly avoid seeing or hearing about the missing girl and many joined the search effort. Many parents used the situation as a reminder to their children to “never talk to strangers.”

After several days, police found the girl’s body and within days her mother was charged with the murder. Children who knew about the missing girl still asked about her. Now parents had a dilemma; how could they explain that the cute little girl was dead and it was the girl’s mother, not a stranger, who killed her? Some parents made up lies to protect their children from the

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grim reality. The children’s continuing questions about the girl prompted these parents to tell even more lies. The more lies they told, the more guilty they felt about lying.

One neighborhood brought in a panel of experts, of which I was one, to allow parents to discuss their feelings and get advice about explaining this situation to their children. We encouraged parents to tell their children the truth, as difficult as it was, in a factual but reassuring way, saying the mother did something very wrong and the child was not at fault.

Children from bitter divorces lie more than children from intact families or from respectful divorces. Divorce is always traumatic for children, but one of the biggest factors in the children’s adjustment is their parents’ treatment of each other in front of and away from the children. Children of bitter divorces suffer from the lies and half-truths angry parents tell them to gain the child’s loyalty. Visitation and custody disputes can divide children’s loyalties and disrupt their lives. Children love both parents, but angry parents may criticize an ex-spouse or use the children as pawns in the parents’ struggle for control. The emotional damage to children and the relationship between the adults who must still parent them can take decades to heal.

Privacy is especially important to children who are trying to survive the delicate balancing act of living in two worlds and pleasing two separate parents. When parents grill their children about an ex-spouse’s activities, children may lie or hide information, knowing it could be used against them (or the other parent) later. To avoid putting children in situations in which lies seem the only way out, parents must develop a short “need to know” list. This list might include whether children are sick while visiting the other parent or if children are physically or emotionally abused. Beyond this, parents can be friendly nonjudgmental listeners, if children feel like talking. It takes enormous self-discipline to suppress questions and criticisms, but parents need to remember they are the adults and act like it.

Parents start with their children’s trust, but as children grow older, they must earn it.

Preventing  and  Responding  to  Lies

  • Model truthfulness. We want to be clear with our children that we do not accept lying and why—and then practice what we preach. 
  • Teach truthfulness. It is best to teach truthfulness repetitively, not only after children have already lied. Share events from the newspaper and talk with children about the hardships people experience because of their mistakes and lies. Almost every fairy tale poses a moral problem. Parents can use these opportunities to discuss decision-making and the results of truth and dishonesty. 
  • Practice balanced parenting and respectful discipline. Children need to feel safe enough to admit their wrong doing. When parents use power punishments that are harsh or unfair, children are more likely to lie. When there is too little parental supervision, children can get away with lying often, so they become quite skilled at it. When parents use reasonable, respectful discipline, children are more likely to be truthful. Studies have found that children from balanced families not only lied less, but showed a stronger belief in moral behavior. 
  • If you suspect a lie, try not to respond in anger, although you will probably feel hurt and betrayed. Remember what it was like to be a child and how hard being honest can be. Try to understand the child’s motive and use problem solving, instead of only punishing the child.
  • Believe children, unless you have good reason to be suspicious. Too often, parents presume children are guilty unless the children can prove themselves innocent. If children have lied in the past, don’t hold a grudge and suspect lying even when children are being truthful. When we disbelieve truthful children, the damage can be severe. Be willing to forgive and start rebuilding trust.


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  • Question children in ways that encourage them to be truthful. Don’t try to trap children in a lie. For example, a parent finds an empty bottle of alcohol in the trash and asks, “What did you and John do while you were playing pool in the family room last night?” If you have reason to suspect a problem, maintain self-control, be up-front with what you know, and present it respectfully. “I just found . . . I need to know the truth about . . .” 
  • Reassure children that you won’t be as angry if they tell the truth—and then keep your cool as you listen. Deal with the problem and thank them for taking the risk to be honest. Depending on the offense, consider not disciplining or disciplining less, when children are honest about their mistakes. This doesn’t mean we “plea-bargain” about more or less discipline. 
  • Have separate disciplines, one for the actual misdeed and an additional one for lying. Children need to understand that these are two separate disciplines for two different offenses. The discipline for lying can reflect the breakdown in trust. For example, when teens miss curfew and lie about why they were late there are two problems. An appropriate discipline for the missed curfew is to give up social privileges for one or a few nights. Teens can rebuild trust by agreeing to call home once or twice during the evening, when their privileges are restored.

A Personal Story. One night, when Amber was six, I saw that her bed sheet had been cut or ripped. I said, “Look at this big rip! Did you do this?” Her nonverbal language said, “Yes,” but I could tell she was considering lying, probably because I sounded upset. I quickly changed my tone of voice and approach. I said, “This sheet has been cut. It was either cut a little bit and it tore more or the whole thing was cut. Can you tell me which?” She was still hesitant and whispered, “Will I get in trouble if I tell?” I said, “If you lie, you will be in double trouble, for lying and cutting the sheet. If you tell the truth, you might or might not get in trouble for cutting the sheet. I would need to ask you a few questions first.”

She admitted to cutting the sheet by nodding her head “Yes” ever so slightly. I said, “Thank you for being honest. I know it’s scary to talk about something that might get you in trouble, but it’s important to tell the truth. I won’t get as angry about what you did if I know it took extra courage to tell the truth. What were you thinking when you cut the sheet?” She shrugged her shoulders. I said, “You just had the idea and didn’t think first?” She nodded. I continued, “How did you feel when you cut the sheet?” “Bad,” she replied. “So you realized you did something wrong,” I reflected back. She nodded. “What did you learn about using scissors on cloth?” She didn’t say anything. I said, “Do you see how scissors ruin cloth forever?” She nodded, “Yes.” I asked, “Will you do this again?” She shook her head, “No.” “Will you tell me the next time you do something wrong?” She nodded her head, “Yes.”

I concluded, “Since you were honest with me, realize what you did was wrong, and promise not to do it again, I won’t take the scissors away. But I won’t buy a new sheet, either. You’ll have to sleep with this hole in it. Just think before you cut something again, okay?” She looked relieved and nodded her head “Yes.” While we hugged, I said, “It can be hard to be honest sometimes. But you usually get in more trouble lying. I hope you feel better being honest.” She nodded “Yes.”


It’s hard to lie if . . .

  • the stakes are high.
  • they respect the target of the lie.
  • they are inexperienced in lying.
  • the target of the lie is hard to mislead.
  • others who know the truth will witness the lie.
  • they will be disciplined for lying.
  • the discipline for the misdeed is fair. 

It’s easy to lie if . . .

  • the stakes are low.
  • the target of the lie is harsh and unfair.
  • they have successfully lied often.
  • the target of the lie is gullible.
  • the person can have time to plan ahead.
  • there is no consequence for lying.
  • they will get punished, not disciplined, for the misdeed.