Goals of misbehavior – Part 2: Power

Why do children misbehave? To communicate? To control? To manipulate? This four-part series will describe the goals of misbehavior, what they mean and how you can effectively respond to them.

To make up for feeling powerless, children use their behavior to either demand control or simply take it.
To make up for feeling powerless, children use their behavior to either demand control or simply take it.

Research has identified four main goals of misbehavior from children: attention, power, revenge and display of inadequacy. This article will focus on the second goal, power. For more information about why children misbehave, check out Michigan State University Extension’s articles on attention, revenge and display of inadequacy.

Whether or not we choose to admit it, everyone wants power. Truthfully, this is not a bad thing. We often associate the word “power” with overbearing, manipulative actions often occurring at the expense of others. In the context of children, power means control.

Children do not yet have the skills and knowledge to have complete power over their lives, otherwise they’d be eating ice cream for dinner every night and wearing flip flops in a blizzard! Control over self is an intrinsic drive, a strong desire to make decisions and complete actions on our own. Take toddlers for instance. With “Me,” “No,” and “I do it!” as regular parts of their vocabulary, they are verbally expressing this desire for power. As children grow older, they find more direct ways of seeking out control.

The second goal of misbehavior in children is power. This misbehavior usually pops up when children feel like they have very little control over what is happening around them. To make up for feeling powerless, children use their behavior to either demand control or simply take it. Examples of these behaviors include ignoring a request, pushing the limits or boundaries or outbursts of anger

Parents often feel and show strong emotional reactions to displays of power-oriented misbehavior. These actions usually end up with parents being angry, threatened with a strong desire to punish the child or to fight back. It is very easy to react quickly to power struggles with strict punishment, scolding or yelling. This is a natural attempt to reassert your control. This has two outcomes: either the child gains control by creating a situation where you feel powerless or the child feels even more out of control.

How to manage power-seeking behaviors

Try these tips from the Michigan State University Extension to manage power-seeking misbehavior.

  • Make it a win-win. Give up the notion of “winning” these situations. When there’s a winner, there’s also a loser. Do we really want our children to lose, or do we want them to learn? Instead of a competition, think of these as opportunities for teamwork, collaboration and compromise. This is a great chance to teach your child valuable life skills, foster a healthy relationship with open communication and teach them self-control.
  • Bow out. A tug of war takes two participants. If you refuse to enter into a power struggle with your child, they’ll have no one to fight against. Instead of getting sucked into an argument or pushed into reacting, which effectively gives your child the power they are searching for, try these tips for avoiding power struggles.
  • Give them what they want. Children need opportunities to have control and make choices for themselves, so let them! When you share this power with children on your own terms, you can avoid power struggles. Let them have a vote in what to make for dinner, let them decide whether they want to clean their room or do their homework first. When children have control, they feel useful, valuable and yes, powerful.

When children initiate these power struggles, they are seeking out a perfectly acceptable and understandable goal, they are just working towards that goal in the wrong way. When we engage in powers struggles, children get a sense of power from the outcome, but they miss out on an opportunity to practice positive and effective life skills necessary for true power, like communication, compromise and collaboration. While we can’t let children have complete control over the decisions that affect them, as parents and caregivers it is our duty to help them learn how to use their power wisely.

Remember that misbehaviors are opportunities to listen to, care for and teach your child. Responding appropriately will help you model and reinforce positive behaviors patterns, strengthen your communication with your child and increase the quality of your interactions.

For more information about positive discipline, child development, academic success or parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website. Don’t forget to check out the upcoming articles on revenge and display of inadequacy.

Other articles in series:

Michigan State University Michigan State University Close Menu button Menu and Search button Open Close