I hope you enjoy this excerpt from the newly released book from Thomas Armstrong, PhD, The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion. It’s a goldmine of helpful information! Read on…

Strategy #67

Discover and Manage the Four Types of Misbehavior (Ages 4–18)

Kahlil Gibran, in his well-known poem about children, says, “Your children are not your children / They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.” By this, Gibran means, among other things, that children are not parents’ property, but rather have their own independent lives and destinies. As separate human beings, children are deserving of our deepest respect. These watchwords are especially important when considering appropriate discipline methods for managing children’s misbehaviors.


An approach to discipline that embodies this kind of respect for children has its origins in the work of Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychiatrist who was at one time a disciple of Sigmund Freud. Adler and his colleague Rudolf Dreikurs, an American psychiatrist, believed that all children’s behavior was bent on achieving two goals: to feel a sense of belonging and to be significant. Children who misbehave are trying to reach these two objectives, but they mistakenly believe that they can attain these goals by engaging in activities seen as troublesome or disturbing by those around them. An important first step in helping children learn more appropriate ways of behaving resides in discovering the real reasons behind a child’s misbehavior and then dealing with the underlying need.
Rudolf Dreikurs suggests that instances of misbehavior are apt to fall primarily into one of four types:
1. Children misbehave to gain attention. When children misbehave in this way, they’re trying to feel significant and establish a sense of belonging by drawing attention to themselves. (“You haven’t been paying enough attention to me! I want you to notice me and care about me!”)
2. Children misbehave to achieve power. Here children are trying to feel important and connected to others by asserting themselves in a strong way. (“I can do what I want, where I want, when I want! So there!)
3. Children misbehave to seek revenge. Here, children want compensation for the hurt of feeling deprived of importance or a sense of belonging. (“So you don’t think I matter much, do you? Well, I’ll show you a thing or two!”)
4. Children misbehave to assume an attitude of inadequacy. In this case, children are reacting to a perceived loss of importance and belonging by simply giving up. (“Nothing I do makes any difference to you! Well, you can just forget about it! I’m not doing anything anymore!”)
A specific instance of misbehavior can outwardly look like any these four types. So, for example, when Susie knocks the flowerpot off the table, she could be saying “Pay attention to me!” or “I’m more powerful than you!” or “That’s what you get for punishing me!” or “I don’t care anymore!” You’ll need to do some problem solving to get at the underlying issue, including a look at your child’s past misbehaviors (is there a pattern?), a sizing up of the current situation (what events led up to this misbehavior?), and your own parental intuition.
Once you’ve identified the type of misbehavior, you need to take practical steps to deal with it. Each of the four types requires a somewhat different approach. Here are some possible responses:
  • When the issue is attention, you might ignore the behavior or do something unexpected (sing a funny song in response to a child’s attention-getting whining).
  • If the underlying motive is power, then you might need a cooling-off period followed by a problem-solving session to resolve the struggle.
  • If your child seeks revenge, then curbing the urge to retaliate and welcoming cooperation might be ways you could handle the problem.
  • If your child misbehaves because of feelings of inadequacy, then teaching her skills in the area of perceived inadequacy, as well as setting up opportunities for her to experience success, can go a long way toward moving her in a more positive direction.

Some parents might think, “Well, my child is misbehaving because he has ADHD not because of these other things, and so he basically just needs medication and behavior modification to control his medical condition.” But just because your child has a diagnosis of ADHD doesn’t mean that he’s any less human or any less subject to the same need to feel significant and have a sense of belonging as any other child. Once you realize that medication, rewards, and punishments don’t really get to the heart of a child’s misbehavior and that all children seek and deserve respect and encouragement, then your relationship with your child will likely improve dramatically.


For Further Information Rudolf Dreikurs and Vicki Soltz, Discipline without Tears: A Reassuring and Practical Guide to Teaching Your Child Positive Behavior (New York: Plume, 1999). Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline (New York: Ballantine, 2006)

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, and an award-winning author and speaker who has been an educator for over forty years. Over one million copies of his books are in print in English on issues related to learning and human development.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and has been featured in The Huffington PostShe brings over 20 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to an nine-year-old who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. She works with families one on one, in groups, and through online offerings.