Please remember that you signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement before being granted access to this content. You have my permission to reprint this content for your personal use only. If you want to reprint or distribute this to others, please complete & submit a reprint request form. Thank you!– Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.




PU TOOLSET (Unintentional misbehavior)




11 PU  TOOLSET  (Unintentional  misbehavior)


We can expect some “normal” problems in the life of a house. Paint eventually chips, floors creak as the foundation settles, and roofs need new shingles. We try to make improvements to prevent future problems or prepare a plan when problems occur.

In parenting, we can expect some problems during the different developmental stages in children’s lives. If children have certain medical conditions or personality traits, they can exhibit challenging behaviors that are considered “normal” when these factors are present. We do not excuse their behavior. Instead, we teach children the skills they need to achieve developmental mile-stones, balance negative traits, and compensate for their medical challenges. Until they master these skills and work through these issues, children can unintentionally misbehave.



Our tour has finally arrived at Step C2, Redirecting misbehavior—and I have some good news—you have already learned most of the tools you need to use! We often use the same tools to redirect behavior that we use to prevent it. So why do we need separate chapters on PU (Parent problem, Unintentional misbehavior) and PO (Parent problem, “On purpose” misbehavior) problems? Because there are certain tools that are best for redirecting certain types of misbehavior. This chapter encourages us to consider five important ideas about PU behavior:

  1. There is a difference between PU and PO behavior. We need to recognize which type of behavior we are facing, so we choose the most effective tools for our response.
  2. Some behaviors can be both PU or PO, depending on the underlying reason for the behavior. This is why it is important to correctly diagnose which type of behavior we are dealing with.
  3. PU behavior can result from several factors.
  4. PU behavior can turn into PO behavior, if we don’t correctly identify it and respond appropriately.
  5. There are certain tools we’ve already learned, and a few new ones, that are particularly effective in redirecting PU behavior. In this chapter, we review and learn these specific tools.


Whenever we see problem behavior, we need to first stop and ask ourselves, “Is this behavior unintentional or on purpose?” To help us answer that question, we use the information in the PU Toolset. Once we know we are dealing with PU behavior, we can use certain tools we’ve already learned and those in the PU Toolset to redirect it.



Let’s review what we learned in Chapter 3, “The Universal Blueprint,” and then we will take each point and examine it in detail.




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Question #2: Is the misbehavior   Unintentional or “On purpose”?

To tell the difference between PU and  PO behavior, consider the following questions:

  1. Is this behavior the result of the child’s immaturity or developmental stage?
  2. Is this behavior part of the child’s personality (it doesn’t come naturally)?
  3. Is this an accident or is a medical condition influencing the child’s self-control? (Illness, mental retardation, ADHD, autism, etc.)
  4. Does the child lack the information to know better?
  5. Has the child not consistently shown that he or she has mastered the skills to behave properly in this situation? (This one often covers the first four issues, which might explain why the child hasn’t mastered the skill.)

“Yes” to any one question = PU problem (Parent problem, Unintentional misbehavior).

“No” to all questions             =  PO problem (Parent problem, “On purpose” misbehavior).

1. This behavior is the result of the child’s immaturity or developmental stage.

It is important to have realistic expectations about children’s abilities. If we don’t understand what behaviors are age-appropriate, we can easily mistake PU behavior for PO behavior. It is unrealistic to expect infants to sleep through the night or not cry when they are hungry. It’s normal for a two-year-old to refuse to share or to be curious about dangerous objects. Most teenagers want more freedom and question values and rules. Each of these behaviors serves a specific developmental purpose.

Every human being goes through the same basic developmental process, but each child has an individual rate and style of development.

Children can differ in the number of new skills they learn at once and how much they practice them.



  • All-at-once versus one-at-a-time learners. Some children practice several different new skills at once. (A toddler might practice walking, toileting, and self-feeding.) Others practice skills in one or a few areas at a time, adding new skills to the ones they’ve already mastered. (A toddler might practice walking, but not show any interest in toileting.)
  • Trial-and-error versus wait-and-do learners. Similarly, some children repeatedly try a new skill without getting discouraged. Other children observe and practice skills in their minds, until they know the skill well enough to perform it. It seems that these children aren’t progressing in their development and then, one day, suddenly, they do something new!

Children with the two latter styles often have frustrated parents who say, “All the other ___-year-olds are doing ___, but mine isn’t even trying!” These children are learning and practicing skills, but just aren’t showing it outwardly. When these children are ready, they use a new skill right away, without the trial and error period. We want to look at the skills our children have learned and trust their own timetable for learning new skills.


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A Personal Story. Both my children were late potty trainers. At 2½, neither used a toilet, but could boot-up a computer on their own. Despite my best efforts to teach and encourage, nothing made a difference. Exasperated and desperate, I’d occasionally push, bribe, threaten, and shame them, even though I knew those tactics wouldn’t work—and I was right. We just got into power struggles and felt more discouraged. Finally, I decided to trust nature’s timetable and neither went to preschool in diapers.



Children develop at their own pace. Each child has a unique biological timetable. Sooner or later, all children reach developmental milestones, unless there is a medical or emotional problem. As we learned in the Independence Toolset, our rule-of-thumb is to “nudge, but don’t push.” Our job is to teach skills, give encouragement, be patient, and allow children to experience and learn from their mistakes.

While there are certain ages that most children master certain skills, these are age ranges. Some time, usually within that age range, children develop certain skills. For example, most preteens go through puberty between 11 and 14. It is still “normal,” however, for the onset of puberty to occur in children as young as 9 or as old as 16. If children have not begun to do certain tasks by certain ages, however, it may suggest they are experiencing difficulty. Knowing what is appropriate at different stages is important, so we know if the child needs professional help.

Developmentally delayed children function below what is considered normal for their age. We use their functioning age to identify emotional and intellectual causes of misbehavior. For example, if we are diagnosing whether misbehavior is PU for a twelve-year-old who functions at a six-year-old level, we base it on what is considered normal behavior for a six-year-old child. What does a six-year-old know and understand? We still consider the biological age, however, when diagnosing physical factors that influence behavior, such as hormone surges during puberty.

Traumas and poor adjustments to change can cause temporary developmental delays. If children experience great changes, inconsistencies, or traumatic experiences, these issues can sidetrack their development. These issues can include ineffective parenting or teaching styles, abuse, neglect, moving, divorce, or other separation and loss issues. It is difficult for children to deal with these emotional issues in addition to their normal developmental issues. If children are unable to resolve these issues in healthy ways, their poor coping skills can cause developmental delays.

Growth occurs in waves. At each major developmental stage, children work through certain issues and tasks. There are natural ups-and-downs as children master these new skills. It is necessary for children to go through a temporary period of imbalance before moving to a new level. If they didn’t do this, they would have to immediately jump from one developmental stage to the next, with no transition period. This would be unnatural. Children often step back and regroup between their great spurts of learning. In the early years, these difficult periods often come at approximately six-month intervals, but even this time frame is not a hard and fast rule.

If things are going smoothly and suddenly our children’s behavior takes a downward dive, we want to consider what is happening with them developmentally. If we can’t identify any traumas or mistakes we are making, there is a good possibility that these children are getting ready to make a developmental leap and are entering this transition period. Many parents are concerned about these regressions, when children revert to old, outgrown habits. It is particularly helpful, during these times, to review literature about the developmental issues children face at that age.


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Developmental  Stages

The descriptions in this book are brief summaries of developmental stages. An excellent resource for more detailed information is a series of books, by Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg of the Gesell Institute of Child Development. The series goes from “Your One Year Old” to “Your Ten to Fourteen Year Old” (Copyrights 1976–1990). These books are available at most public libraries. Each book explains the physical, emotional, intellectual, and social development of children that age. Usually within the first few pages, we say to ourselves, “Yes! That’s what my child is doing! They are describing my child to a tee!” This realization is reassuring. It can help us get on track with a healthy approach to their PU behavior. This series of books is informational, rather than skill-oriented. It explains very well what is going on but only gives general suggestions for what to do about it. Once we know what issues we are facing, we can refer back to The Parent’s Toolshop and plan a helpful response.

All children develop in a predictable sequence—but at their own pace and in their own style. Certain kinds of skills must come before others. For example, all children sit up and crawl before they walk. Below are some general descriptions of the major developmental stages and the tools we use most often with children that age. Although children may not show all the PU behaviors listed at the end of the chapter, they are still working on the following developmental issues.



Age: Birth through approximately 12 to 15 months.

Developmental Issues: Their world is very focused—it consists of the infant and caretakers. When infants become mobile, they start working on developmental issues similar to toddlers.

  • Infants are learning to trust. Since infants are totally dependent, they learn trust by feeling secure that someone will meet their needs. A good parental motto is “A baby’s wants are a baby’s needs.” Contrary to old wives’ tales, infants cannot be manipulative or spoiled. Parents cannot hold infants too much or meet their needs too quickly. Human touch and interaction promotes physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. (Remember the brain studies and monkey experiment in Chapter 4, “Self-Esteem Toolset”?)



Tools to use: Infants best understand nonverbal messages, tone of voice, and actions. When infants display PU behavior, we can use the nonverbal tools we’ve already learned, the Self-Esteem and Independence Toolsets, and tools listed later in the PU Toolset. Practice the language of effective parenting, because infants will understand you before they can speak themselves.

Ages: Approximately 12 to 15 months (when they are toddling and walking well) through 3 years.

Developmental Issues: Young toddlers are aware of the world around them—but their world is still quite small. It consists of the toddler, the caretakers, siblings, and their daily environment (home, day care, and places they regularly visit). The toddler years are a busy developmental stage—for toddlers and their parents. Toddlers are learning about many issues all at once, but still don’t understand or use communication well, so there are more possibilities for PU behavior. When we understand all the wonderful, exciting things toddlers are learning, we see that the “terrible” twos and threes are really a “terrific” time in a child’s life.

  • Toddlers are learning about body control—eating, sleeping, and bathroom activities. A good parental motto is “We can’t make them do it,” whatever “it” is. We need to be patient and respect each toddler’s individual timetable. We can teach skills, establish routines, and encourage their efforts and improvement.


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  • Toddlers are striving for   independence. They often want to be in control of themselves and their environment, which often includes other people. Many toddlers insist on doing tasks by themselves,  even  if  parents  can  do  the  task  quicker. When  we  do  tasks  for  them,  they  often  rebel through power struggles and temper tantrums. Since most toddlers still don’t talk well, this is how they say they don’t like what we are doing and exert their independence.
  • Toddlers are learning about ownership. This is why toddlers don’t like to share and say every object in their hands is “mine.” Children must understand and experience ownership before they can understand and want to share. This is the age we can start teaching sharing behavior, but not expect children to always practice the skill.
  • Toddlers are learning about cause and effect and how the world works. They are naturally curious—and curiosity promotes brain development.


Tools to use: Use the Cooperation Toolset, especially “Offering Choices,” “Don’t say Don’t” and “No No’s,” to prevent power struggles. Use the Independence Toolset constantly, to teach skills and allow children to do tasks for themselves. Since most of their misbehavior is PU, we want to use the PU Toolset before or with the Discipline Toolset.

Ages: Approximately 3 (when they might begin preschool) through 6 years (when they begin school).

Developmental Issues: Preschoolers are learning many new skills and refining skills they learned in the toddler years.

  • Preschoolers are near the end of the “transitional period.” This is the time between birth (total dependency) and approximately 4 years, when children become physically independent. If we have been encouraging independence, most children will master basic body-control skills, such as weaning, toileting, self-feeding, and mature sleep patterns. Now, they focus more on increasing their independence and improving their social skills.
  • Preschoolers are very imaginative and interested in learning. They want to learn as many new skills as they can. Their imaginations are in full bloom and they use fantasy when they play. Some children recognize the difference between fantasy and reality, while others blur the two. Preschoolers are fascinated by the fine details of the universe, so they ask many thought-provoking “why” questions.
  • Preschoolers are learning social skills. The preschooler’s world is expanding even more-they are interested in playing with other children and exploring new environments.

Tools to use: We use the Prevention Toolbox to build self-esteem, independence, and cooperation. We use the Child Problem Toolbox to mediate peer/sibling conflicts. When preschoolers share their opinions, feelings, and problems, we listen to their perspective, keep the ball in their court, and teach them problem-solving skills. We want to use the PU or PO Toolsets before or with the Discipline Toolset, so children learn from their behavior mistakes. We can start involving preschoolers in family councils, giving them age-appropriate ways to participate.



Ages: 6 (kindergarten) through approximately 8 years (third grade).

Developmental Issues: Children are continuing to learn skills and resolve issues from early childhood, while preparing for and coping with many new changes. They can still experience frequent regressions into childish behavior. Children this age may also exhibit some PU behaviors of older children.


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  • The new world of school brings many changes. When children enter school, they enter a new world that may be quite different from what they’ve experienced. The school’s rules might be different from the rules at home, so they must adapt and be flexible. They need to sit still for long periods of time, so they must practice self-control and self-discipline. Teachers might have a different teaching and communication style than their parents, so children must practice effective listening and communication skills.
  • Children meet new people and begin new activities. Children learn how to make new friends each year, in school and through extra-curricular activities, such as scouts, dance, etc. These activities can teach them important social and personal skills. They can also add stress to children’s lives if they are involved in too many activities. A good family policy is to allow no more than two activities per season (i.e., sport season or one complete round of lessons). As children are exposed to other children and adults with different personalities and behaviors, they need to listen to their inner voice and learn responsible decision making and problem-solving skills to resolve conflicts that arise.

Tools to use: We mostly use the Prevention and Child Problem Toolboxes. Using the Cooperation Toolset, we can explain the value of the school’s rules and the choices they have within those limits. We can use the Independence Toolset to acknowledge the difficulty of sitting still and being responsible for homework assignments. We can also teach time management skills. We can use the Self-Esteem Toolset to offer encouragement, as children gradually improve these skills. When they have difficulties with teachers or children, we can use the Child Problem Toolbox to teach problem-solving skills so they can resolve these problems. When children make poor decisions, we can use the Clear Communication, PU, PO, and Discipline Toolsets to help them learn from their mistakes and make better future choices. At home, we want to use the Maintenance Toolbox and start involving children more in family councils. Since young elementary children are developing their communication, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, family councils provide a safe way to learn and practice these skills. Children this age really enjoy being involved in family councils that offer them opportunities to share their ideas and talents with the family.



Ages: Fourth through sixth grades, approximately 9 through 11 years.

Developmental Issues: Preteens are refining the many skills they’ve already learned. Certain issues become even more important to the preteen.

  • Individuation intensifies. Individuation is the process of becoming an individual person with unique values, behaviors, personality traits, and sense of identity. Although “individuation” begins at birth, it becomes more intense in the preteen years as children express their independence more strongly. (Remember the backpack analogy in the Independence Toolset?)
  • Peers are becoming more important in their lives, but parents are still quite influential. Preteens are still limited to socializing with peers at school and close to home. Although adults are usually nearby, preteens must frequently rely on whatever communication, decision-making, and problem-solving skills they have to manage peer conflicts. Peer pressure is more intense than in previous stages and children are still likely to use poor judgment. We use these experiences to teach more skills and reinforce our family’s values.
  • Healthy, well-adjusted preteens are often in a coasting stage. They have usually adjusted to their world of home, school, and friends. Their intellectual skills are developing rapidly, as school teaches them about the larger world around them. For some parents, the preteen years are smooth. This may be nature’s way of giving us some rest, before the teen years arrive.


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  • Fourth or fifth grade is often a difficult year. Teachers hold their students more accountable than in previous years, since the students have had four years to understand the school’s rules and develop the skills they need to meet these expectations. School discipline becomes firmer and more consistent, older students are no longer offered “the benefit of the doubt.”

Tools to use: Since most of the preteen’s problems revolve around peers and school, the Self-Esteem, F-A-X Listening, Clear Communication, and Problem-Solving Toolsets are the tools to use. If preteens have not yet mastered the skills they need to succeed at home and in school, we need to back up to the Prevention Toolbox and help them develop these skills before they experience more severe problems. If preteens have experienced many changes or traumatic events, we need to use the Child Problem Toolbox to help them work through their feelings. Unresolved issues can cause more intense problems in the teen years. Outside counseling is often helpful when parents are unable to make an impact or are part of the problem. We want to use the Discipline Toolset and avoid over-controlling punishment tactics. It is vital to hold regular family councils that involve preteens in meaningful ways. Helpful family councils build leadership, decision-making, and communication skills preteens can use at home, at school, and with their peers and siblings.



Ages: Seventh through ninth grades, approximately 12 through 14 years.

Developmental Issues:

  • Individuation is in full bloom. Young teens are discovering what they are capable of doing and might test limits. If adults are unreasonably controlling, young teens are more likely to rebel and defy authority.
  • Peers are increasingly important, but parents still have some influence. Young teens begin trying on identities, to fit in with peer groups. This can lead young teens to “follow the crowd,” if they don’t feel secure enough in their self-worth to stand their ground. If children are going to experiment with drugs, they usually start by the early teens.
  • While puberty might begin earlier, it most commonly starts during this stage. Young teens are maturing physically, emotionally, and mentally and have a great need for privacy.
  • The first year of junior high or middle school is a major transitional year. They change classes often and have many different teachers, each with a different teaching style and list of rules. There is less personalized attention for problems. Many rules are black and white, because teachers don’t have time to negotiate gray areas. Students must be totally responsible for their schoolwork. No one will give them stickers for completing their work or frequently remind them. If young teens don’t learn good study habits by the end of elementary school, the first year of junior high they will sink-or-swim. If they start to sink, parents need to teach skills (or find someone who can), offer encouragement, and acknowledge feelings.

Tools to use: It is important to use the Self-Esteem, F-A-X Listening, Clear Communication, and Problem-Solving Toolsets daily. They can help us guide young teens through Child and Parent problems without taking over or starting power struggles. We need to use the Independence Toolset to teach skills (social, emotional, and physical tasks) so we can let go and trust. If we use two-party problem solving, we can get win/win agreements and reveal respectful discipline. Young teens like to discuss their ideas and feelings, so family councils are a great way to keep the lines of communication open and to build trust. Family councils can also help parents teach skills, prevent problems, and make family decisions.



Ages: Tenth through twelfth grades, approximately 15 through 18 years.


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Developmental Issues: Older teens have many of the same issues as younger teens. They may resolve some of these issues in the later teen years, while other issues intensify.

  • Individuation is at its peak, but completes between ages 25–30 (unless problems like drug addiction or emotional issues delay the process). The teens’ job is to decide who they are and who they want to be. Parents start seeing more signs of what their teen will be like as an adult.
  • Long-term consequences of ineffective habits are more obvious. If parents have used imbalanced parenting tactics, they will now backfire. Teen rebellion (from over-controlling parenting) can become intense, with daily power struggles and revenge cycles. Under-controlling parents probably see spoiled, self-centered, irresponsible teen behavior.
  • Peers are more important and parents have less influence. Most teens are interested in dating and begin struggling with more adult relationship conflicts: power and control personalities, peer violence, premarital sex, male/female communication styles, cliquĂ©s, gossip, and betrayal by friends. Adults have difficulty dealing with these issues, so teens especially need good communication and decision-making skills, emotional stability, and a strong sense of self-worth to work through these problems.
  • Independence is a critical issue for teens. Healthy, well-balanced teens often display maturity and responsible behavior. They begin thinking about future careers and finding jobs to pay for the extras they want. 

Tools to use: The Self-Esteem, Independence, F-A-X Listening, Clear Communication, and Problem-Solving Toolsets are the most important tools to use during the teen years, to maintain trust and open communication. Parents need to use two-party problem solving to discuss discipline and responsibility issues. Family councils are crucial—they help teens feel their ideas, opinions, and participation in the family are important and valued.


2. This  behavior  is part  of  the  child’s  personality.

No two people are the same, however similar they may seem. We all have a unique combination of personality traits. We’ve already identified several kinds of personality traits: problem-solving, recharge, anger energy, learning and communication styles. Any one of these traits is not right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy; they are just different. Each has positive and negative aspects to it. We cannot change someone’s temperament, because much of it is determined by genetic factors, but we can influence how they use their natural abilities.

Be careful labeling children and adults by their personality traits, such as “overly emotional” or “bullheaded.” This implies something is wrong with the trait or person. Remember the skills and suggestions in the “Roles and Labels” section of the Self-Esteem Toolset.

Below is a list of personality traits which can cause PU problems. It includes suggestions for building on the strengths of the trait and managing common problems related to the trait.

  • Children are full of energy, experience strong reactions, and are easily frustrated. When we see intensity building, we can provide quieting activities (reading, imaginative play) or acceptable ways to release energy (creative activities, such as drawing, singing, or acting). The Keep Your Cool Toolset’s recharge activities are helpful for both adults and children with this trait.
  • Children are determined and stick to tasks and issues. They seem to push limits often. Parents can find positive ways to set limits (Don’t Say “Don’t,” No “No’s,” and Rules for Setting Rules), allow choices within bottom-line limits, and acknowledge feelings.
  • Children are easily overwhelmed by senses (touch, smell, etc.) and emotions. (Yes, that shirt label really does bother them!) Parents need to be sensitive to the environment and their own moods. They can change the environment (like cutting off the tag) to reduce stimulation and teach children coping skills.


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  • Children get easily distracted because they hear or see everything and have difficulty tuning out unimportant input. They are often accused of not listening. Speak directly, establish eye contact and use gentle touch. Use words, drawings, and show children what to do. Limit the number of instructions given at one time and keep them simple and clear. Avoid “don’t”; focus on what they can do. Help children find ways to remind themselves to stay on task.
  • Children have a hard time making transitions between activities. These children are uncomfortable with change and become upset in new and unfamiliar situations. Limit the number of transitions children must endure. Have consistent routines and as few surprises as necessary. Explain what will happen next and allow time for children to end one activity before moving to the next. Arrive early or visit ahead of time before expecting children to participate. Be encouraging, but don’t push too hard. With young children, use tangible time references they can understand. Older children with this trait can have difficulty adjusting to classroom changes if they haven’t learned effective coping strategies.
  • Children’s natural rhythms are irregular (sleeping, eating, elimination). All children will have changes in their body rhythms throughout the developmental cycle, like eating more during growth spurts, but these children are regularly irregular. They may have difficulty adapting to consistent routines, so be patient. Show respect for their individual timetables for potty training, weaning, and putting themselves to sleep. Teach skills and nudge, but don’t push. Such irregular cycles seem unusual in childhood, but can prove beneficial in the adult years. (We appreciate emergency room doctors who are fully alert at 3 a.m.!)
  • Children need to move a lot and this need is real. Allow children to move after long sitting periods. Provide safe, acceptable ways to release the energy. Offer frequent opportunities to run, jump, and climb, but make sure they don’t get too wound-up. If children are over stimulated or experience too many transitions, their behavior can fall apart.
  • Children are analytical and serious. They often focus on faults and whine or complain. Help these children find the positive aspects of situations. Appreciate their ability to logically evaluate situations and offer suggestions for improvement. Show children how to have a sense of humor even when things don’t go their way.

Adult PU behavior is often the result of unbalanced personality traits. Negative, controlling people who seem “set in their ways” are difficult to be around, if they expect others to adjust to them. Adults have more control over their environment, the jobs they choose or whether they marry, so some people never learn self-regulating skills that could greatly improve their lives and relationships. We can try using some of the same prevention and response skills with adult PU behavior, but usually have less influence. We can try three approaches: (1) unconditionally love and accept people just as they are, (2) learn how to cope with and respond to their behavior without trying to change them, or (3) set limits that protect us from the damaging effects of being around them. (See the “Setting Limits” section in Chapter 15, “Three C’s: Consistency, handling Criticism, Confidence” for more suggestions.)