Why Kids Are Like Plants: A Gardener’s Guide to the Misbehaving Child

Last week we learned the importance of encouragement in children’s lives.  Rudolf Dreikurs said: Children need encouragement like plants need water.  Just like a properly watered plant the encouraged child thrives, the discouraged withers.   This week (to continue the gardening metaphor) we’re going a little deeper into Dreikurs’ thoughts on children.  Back in the 1960’s Dreikurs held that most of children’s misbehavior could be explained by discouragement when their needs for belonging, safety and significance (i.e. self-worth) are not met.  He proposed analyzing children’s misbehavior from the perspective of four unconscious goals that arise from children’s mistaken beliefs about how to get what they want from their parents and teachers:


  1. Looking for attention;
  2. Engaging in power struggles;
  3. Seeking revenge; and
  4. Avoiding

Dreikurs & Stolz, Children The Challenge (1964)


Attention-Seekers - Children who want undue attention only feel significant when they are being noticed–they feel insecure, alienated and insignificant unless attention is focused on them.  Active attention-seekers will play the class clown or show off to get attention, whereas passive attention-seekers will “forget” things, need to be constantly reminded of chores or homework, and expect to be waited on.  Either way these children keep parents and teachers engaged with them all…the…TIME. 


Adults dealing with these children feel annoyed and irritated.  The impulse is to remind, coax, and nag.  Afterward the behavior will stop for a little while (or the child will do what is asked), but the reprieve is only temporary–as soon as the attention goes away the child wants it back.   The dilemma is that any attention to the annoying behavior itself is counter-productive in the long run.  It encourages such behavior because it teaches the child that this behavior gets attention–even if the attention is negative.


If you remember last week’s discussion of the Crucial C’s you have figured out that Attention-Seekers are looking for “connection.”  They feel insignificant they are saying: “Notice me!” and are willing to even accept negative attention as a form of connection.  The way to correct the behavior is to replace negative attention with positive attention.  Ignore negative, annoying behavior and lavish on positive encouraging attention.


Power-Strugglers – Children who engage in power struggles feel that their significance exists in showing adults that “you can’t make me” or “you can’t stop me.”  These children feel inadequate, dependent, and that others are in control of everything in their lives.


Adults engaged with these children feel challenged and angry.  The impulse will be to fight and to insist that the child “do as I say!”  The child’s reaction will almost always be to intensify the misbehavior because the child will feel even more powerless, more controlled, more dependent and inadequate in the presence of an authority figure that reacts this way.  Naturally this reaction from the child likely intensifies the adult’s reaction (“Now you are really going to do what I say!”) and the power struggle escalates, with each side upping the ante.


The Crucial C for power kids is a desire to feel “capable;” to learn self-reliance, competence, and self-control.  In the best-case scenario adults will step out of the power struggle before it starts giving the child a chance to feel capable and make choices about his or her environment as often as possible.  Children who are discouraged in this way need to be given lots of opportunity to feel competent and to show self-control, to make positive choices, to display power constructively.


Revenge-seekers - Children seeking revenge feel insignificant.  They feel that no one likes them, everyone is against them, and want to show others how it feels.  Their goal is to get back at others for making them feel this way, to get even because they have been hurt.


Adults dealing with children revenge-seekers may feel hurt or may feel the need to punish.  The adult’s impulse is to respond with: “How could you be so mean to your brother?” or “I’ll teach you to talk to me that way!”  This, of course, justifies the child’s belief about what the adult thinks and shows that the child has gotten through: “Ha! See how bad I am!”


Revenge-seekers Crucial C is “count.”  They want to know that they are not as insignificant as they think they are–that they have significance in a positive way.  In encouraging these kids avoid hurt feelings, maintain a sense of empathy, identify their positives and don’t give up on them.


Avoiders- Children who avoid are showing us their belief in their inadequacy.  They feel they can’t do anything right, so they won’t even try.  They feel inferior, useless and hopeless.  These are profoundly discouraged children.


Adults dealing with Avoiders feel despair and hopelessness and often have the impulse to give up.  The child’s response to this is to become passive and more hopeless.


Avoiders need the Crucial C of “courage.”  Adults need to notice only their strengths and ignore the negative.  It is important to set up a steady diet of manageable tasks that have a guarantee of success with no criticism.  Children at this stage and their parents will need a lot of encouragement from a team that includes a family therapist and dedicated school professionals.


When your child is misbehaving think about what that behavior is telling you.  What does your child need and how can you give it in a way that provides the message you you’re your child to learn in the long run?  Remember, you reap what you sow, so water your plants and encourage your children.