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Why Do Kids Do What They Do?

Written by: Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Is this a scenario you can relate to? Two of your children appear to be happily engaged in activities. For no apparent reason, the younger enters their sibling’s personal space. This triggers a highly charged response from the older sibling. He then returns the favor with an aggressive verbal volley and a swipe. Before long, feathers real feathers are flying in all directions The younger one dissolves into tears and rushes to you. They are both demanding justice and retribution. What on earth just happened?

Our child’s behavior might seem to be random and without any particular purpose. Clearly, more often than not, they would not be able to shed any light on this dilemma themselves. Let’s go back to one of the brain’s basic driving forces, the need to belong. We all have the same strong, instinctive need to belong, to be part of the group, accepted by our tribe. In prehistoric times, to be isolated from our group meant certain death at any age. We learn from birth the importance of belonging to our group. It’s why nature has designed a baby’s cry that no birth mother can ever sleep through. The vast majority of us remain socially and emotionally vulnerable to belonging throughout our lives.

Safety is our brain’s top priority. You can’t belong to your group if you’ve already been eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. So, our survival brain is constantly on high alert, ready to extricate us from any potentially threatening situations at maximum speed. Our whole physiology supports this subconscious, uncalled, and totally automatic decision. The urge to retreat from imminent danger is much stronger that the temptation to move towards a potential opportunity or reward. The ratio is about 4:1, in case you were wondering. One anthropologist summed it up nicely when s/he said that our species survived by taking a great deal of notice of the unknown rustle in the grass.

Broadly speaking, children want what we all want, deep down. To be happy and have fun. Only they want it NOW, while we study for years and work for decades to earn enough to buy our happiness and fun. I think it’s why so many of us are mildly (or not so mildly) depressed; because we finally work out that we can’t buy our way into happiness after all. Children instinctively know this, which is why they are more inclined to live in the present moment. But, let’s face it, they are not always skilled at using socially acceptable ways to get what they want. When we disapprove of their attempts, we consider this to be unacceptable, inappropriate, or even misbehavior. Until we can show and teach them more acceptable ways to get what they want, their misguided attempts will remain a point of friction between parent and child.

It was some decades ago now that Rudolph Dreikur designed his 4 Goals of Misbehavior model. Like any model, it has its strengths and weaknesses. ‘One Size Fits Nobody’ is the downside of any model that attempts to corral complex behaviors into a simplistic model, but I think you may find it useful for determining the possible cause of your child’s otherwise inexplicable behavior. If you can use the model to do this, then you’ll be in a much stronger position to choose the best response to the behavior. Remember that we are only talking about one aspect of your child’s behavior here; the one that you consider to be unacceptable to you. Dreikur listed four basic categories, which he described as being (UNDUE) ATTENTION, (MISGUIDED) POWER, REVENGE, and (ASSUMED) HELPLESSNESS.

The key to using the model successfully is to zero in on the goal by noticing how YOU are feeling and responding. How you, the parent, feels and reacts to the child’s behavior is your guide to deciding which category the unacceptable behavior belongs to. Have a plan so that you know in advance what you will do when the child exhibits inappropriate behavior. When you notice a pattern emerging, you can make this a teaching point for the future. You might choose a time just before experience tells you the behavior is likely to occur or during a bedtime or bathtime chat. A time when you are both calm, and your child is receptive to considering a different way to meet their goals.

The Goal of Undue Attention

We all want attention. We want to be noticed. It’s why social media has such a strong pull on our attention and why the call of “Hey, fellas, watch this” resulted in the instituting of the Darwin Awards. And of course, we should pay attention to our children. But not to the point that they start to believe they are the center of the universe. Some children need or demand more attention than others. Hence the label is ‘undue’ attention. These children think they only matter when they are being noticed or when someone, anyone, is serving them. This is not to say that it is true, only that the child perceives it to be true.

If you find yourself feeling annoyed and react with coaxing and reminding, the goal of attention is the likely culprit. Even your negative attention is better than none at all. Not their first choice, but your needy child will take what they can get. It’s beyond the scope of this article to delve into the reasons why some children demand more undue attention than others. Educators are all too familiar with the attention-seeking behavior that some children exhibit, day in and day out.

You’ve fallen into the trap and are giving out some kind of attention to the inappropriate behavior. Looking back, you’re sorry that you did, but at the time, you didn’t actually see it coming until it was too late. Once the child has provoked you into a response, the attention-seeking behavior is likely to stop until you consider it safe to resume your own activity. Then it is likely to reappear, or a new, but similar behavior may surface. If you respond again, you are now entering the power-struggle loop, that will only stop if YOU disrupt the pattern, as the child is happy to continue the behavioral loop that is working so well for them. You can’t disrupt the loop with more coaxing and reminding, so what should you do?

If you want a different result, you will need to choose a different response. You could strategically ignore the attention-seeking behavior, especially if you are in the privacy of your own home. Down at the supermarket or at the school gate at pick-up time could result in an embarrassing stand-off, so pick your situation and location with care. It is important to be calm before your response and when you do, clearly point out that this is NOT the way to get your attention. Then choose a time when you can explain to them what those ways might be. You’re not going to starve them of attention. That would be totally counter-productive. But plan ahead and take opportunities to give lots of positive attention when they are not demanding it. The Golden Rule for responding to undue attention is to give them attention randomly and spasmodically. Don’t fall into any kind of predictable pattern, so they never know when a burst of positive parental attention is coming.

I’m a great believer in behavior rehearsal. It could go something like this. I’ve noticed that when Daddy is on the phone, you come to me and disrupt me by asking me for something you want or need. Sometimes the phone call is very important, and Daddy is not to be interrupted. Let’s think of three things you could do while you wait for Daddy to finish on the phone. That’s right; you could play with your toys, read a book, or lie quietly on the floor next to me. Let’s practice that now”. And you would practice your role play, but don’t expect them to get it right the first time. Keep practicing until they do, and give lots of positive feedback as they get closer to the result you are looking for.

It is equally important to give them positive attention when it is NOT being demanded. You may choose to actually stop what you are doing and give attention, just because you can. Give a meaningful, “I see you” glance or devise a signal to show love, even if you don’t have time for them right now. Make your intentions explicit don’t assume they understand your message. “When Mummy is busy and not to be interrupted, I will blow you a kiss, like this. And you will know that I love you and you can talk to me when I’m finished. Now, tell me what it means when Mummy does this (blow a kiss). That’s right. It means I LOVE YOU and will talk to you soon.”

The Goal of Misguided Power

Adults and children alike engage in power struggles because it’s the best way we can think of to get what we want or need. The occurrence, length and intensity of power struggles can vary with the ages and stages of the child’s development, their individual character, your propensity to struggle back and how hard or easy it is to engage you. Peak times for power struggles are the early toddler years when the first surge for independence is arising and again during adolescence when an even stronger urge will engulf your growing teenager. Strong-willed children are more inclined to engage in power struggles, as are those who feel disempowered by the decisions governing their life. The teenage years are generally recognized as a transitional stage when they are growing out of childhood, but are not yet firmly planted in adulthood, despite their often-misguided perception that they are ready to make all of life’s important decisions.

The child who regularly engages in power struggles is thinking they only count when they are the boss and can do whatever they want. You will know that a power struggle is pending when you are feeling provoked, angry, or challenged. I can feel it coming when my heart rate increases and my muscles tense, particularly on my face. If I don’t stop myself, I too dig in, and the struggle for power commences. Adults often win a power struggle as the power differentiation is in their favor, we’re bigger (at least in the early years), and we hold the family resources. When we withhold them, we call these consequences.

For a strong-willed child, reprimands usually intensify their determination to absolutely NOT give in. Defiance will escalate, bringing with it more unacceptable behaviors. The best course of action now is for you to walk away, literally or figuratively. Use your words, if you are calm enough, to explain that you will return to the conversation when you are both much calmer. Use a non-confronting, and conversational tone fake it if you must. When you do engage in a conversation, ask genuine questions, and invite them to do the same. You’re aiming to have the kind of discussion that gets to the root of the problem and generates some mutually acceptable solutions.

If they are trying to engage you in a debate or an argument, it is a clear sign that they are not ready for the conversation. The older the child, the longer you can afford to wait to engage with them in a discussion. You may feel the need to explain your stance, but only if you have not done so recently. Make sure you stay firmly in charge of the terms of the agreement, as your child will be highly motivated to pull you back into the power struggle. You may even be able to redirect a young child, with a tickle or a joke, but be prepared for it to backfire.

The Goal of Revenge

If you’ve engaged in a power struggle and think you’re the winner, think again. Because the next goal of your child’s behavior is likely to be revenge. Also, be on the alert for your own revengeful behavior if you feel like you lost the power struggle. If harsh discipline or consequences designed to ‘really teach them a lesson’ come to mind, you may be using parental discipline as a form of revenge. Make sure you are in a calm and loving space before taking disciplinary action. The revengeful child is often already feeling unloved, disempowered, and worthless. Often, they feel that all they can do is pass on their pain; to you, a sibling, or a classmate. They think that if they’re not liked and don’t have any power, at least they can still hurt others.

If you’re the target of the child’s revenge, you will feel hurt, disappointed, or dismayed, and the urge to get even or retaliate can be overwhelming. Responding to a child’s “I hate you!” with “Well, I hate you too!” is just not helpful. As incongruous as it seems, your child needs to experience less pain, not more – and certainly not from you. A revengeful child will want to get even with anyone and everyone they consider to be a worthy target. They’re not out to win your approval here, nor are they kindly inclined toward any sibling that gets in the firing line. The innocent can easily get dragged into the fray if they get too close. Right now, they feel that the only power they have is to inflict physical or emotional pain on others.

Let’s face it. Revengeful children can be hard to like, especially if they are lashing out at you or your nearest and dearest. Remember they are entrenched in their downstairs brain, so first engage with them emotionally, with love and acceptance for how they are feeling. Do your best to listen without jumping in with judgments or quick fixes. Knowing someone is willing to listen with unconditional love is essential. Stay physically close, but don’t intrude into their personal space unless they are open to this. Only intervene physically if you, them, a family member, or an innocent stranger is in danger of being hurt. Even then, use the least intrusive restraint possible, preferably verbal.

The Goal of Assumed Helplessness

In many ways, this can be the hardest to deal with. Maybe the child has placed unrealistic expectations on themselves, or it has been placed on them by significant others. Some children have worked out that the less competent they appear to be, the more they will be helped and the less they will actually have to do themselves. First, decide if the child thinks they’re no good, nothing they ever do is good, and why should they even bother to try. These children give up easily, are reluctant to try new things, and often make disparaging comments about themselves. Those that think the less they appear able to do, the less they will be asked to do have acquired a learned form of laziness that responds best to firm and consistent expectations being made clear, and the teaching of skills they may have missed through an unwillingness to engage in their own welfare. These children are not the focus of this article.

Parents facing genuinely assumed helplessness often find it hard to counter their own feelings of hopelessness and despair at their child’s unwillingness to engage with a task or activity. High achieving and intrinsically motivated adults will have little understanding of what the child is feeling or why. Depending on their own resilience, they may also be discouraged, to the point of giving up on the child. Homework is a fraught arena for many families, as it is often where assumed helplessness is on display. Some parents find it all too painful and come to the rescue much too quickly, so denying their child the opportunity to learn resilience or self-sufficiency.

There’s no easy fix here. The problem likely didn’t arise overnight, and it won’t go away overnight. It requires a great deal of patience and diligence on the part of the parent. If the behavior is chronic (occurring over a long period of time), look for possible underlying causes. Is there a family history of depression? Are they getting enough sleep? Is their diet nutritious? Are there academic or social problems at school? Whatever you do, don’t show pity they pity themselves enough already. Don’t criticize their attitude, attempts, or their behavior. Find ways to genuinely and authentically express faith in their abilities. “You might be struggling with this math assignment but remember how hard you worked on your art project. You can do this.” Be patient and don’t give up on them. They will take it personally and feel validated for feeling hopeless.


The steps for dealing with unacceptable behavior are quite straightforward.

1. How are you feeling in response to the child’s behavior

2. Form a hypothesis about the likely goal.

  • Annoyed = Goal of ATTENTION

  • Provoked = Goal of POWER

  • Hurt = Goal of REVENGE

  • Discouraged = Goal of HELPLESSNESS

3. Choose a response from the suggestions for that category.

4. Be prepared to teach new skills and concepts that are your job as a parent.

5. If it works, or at least helps, you have probably identified the correct goal.

6. If not, return to the drawing board and see if another goal is more likely.

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Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Elizabeth is a unique parenting coach because she:

  • Made all the mistakes you could possibly make as a young mother

  • Finally got her act together and went skydiving, hiking, travelled, SCUBA dived, and played team sports with her children during their middle childhood and teenage years

  • Has formally studied the neuroscience of teaching, learning, and parenting and is passionate about sharing her knowledge, expertise, and insights with as many people as she possibly can

  • Believes that our brain has a mind of its own

  • And the only behavior we can actually change is our own

If you’d like to learn more, schedule a zoom meeting, email at, book a call on Schedule Once, and visit her website or join her on her Facebook Page Mindful Parenting | Facebook. Her first book, Mindful Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind, is an easy-to-read neuro parenting book, and her Mindful Parent Turnaround Programs will support you through the process of changing your parenting habits.



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