Goals of misbehavior – Part 4: Inadequacy

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.

When children experience feelings of inadequacy, they may act out by displaying withdrawal behaviors, a pessimistic attitude or by putting themselves down.

When children experience feelings of inadequacy, they may act out by displaying withdrawal behaviors, a pessimistic attitude or by putting themselves down.

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

Everyone feels down once in a while. Sometimes acting out is, well, a little less active. Children might misbehave in these situations passively, by engaging withdrawal or avoidance behaviors, like refusing to complete a requested task or participate in an event. To cope with these feelings, many children show a hesitancy to try or engage because they don’t feel like they are good enough.

When children experience these feelings, they might feel unworthy or inferior to others. In order to avoid these uncomfortable feelings and the vulnerability that comes with them, children often act out by displaying withdrawal behaviors, a pessimistic attitude or by putting themselves down.

Children may not have the words or tools necessary to communicate or address these feelings and because no parent or caregiver wants to watch their child feel this way, these situations often make parents feel helpless or discouraged.

How to manage inadequacy-oriented behaviors

Try these tips from MSU Extension to manage behaviors stemming from feelings of inadequacy:

  • Be responsive and present. Presence and proximity are powerful when it comes to parenting children. When children know you are not only physically close, but that you show them you are present and responsive, they feel safe and cared for and they can take advantage of opportunities to seek help or comfort. It’s also important for children to know that sometimes it’s OK to be alone and address uncomfortable feelings. If your child needs some space, instead of making it a punishment like at time-out, make it a retreat. Suggest they read a book, draw a picture, take a walk or do another activity they find soothing.
  • Build them up. Remind children why they are so special, important and loved. We don’t want to fill children up with false praise, but by noticing and noting the positives – character traits, behaviors and actions – we can help children develop a strong sense of worth. If we help create situations where our children can be successful, we can help them build feelings of self-worth. Try seeking out their expertise by trusting them with an important job or assignment. Help them regain their sense of success and value.
  • Accept them. No one is perfect, so when we set very high standards for children, they inevitably fail to measure up. Create an environment where it’s OK to fail, make mistakes and it is OK to not be perfect. It took Thomas Edison 1,000 failures to invent the light bulb; remind your child that it’s OK to fail because that is how you grow and learn.

Sometimes this requires a lot of patience on your part because it is tempting to swoop in and try to solve the problem. By giving your child an opportunity to recognize, feel and understand their emotions, you are preparing them to handle bigger situations they will face as they grow up.

Remember that misbehaviors are opportunities to listen to, care for and teach your child. Responding appropriately will help you model and reinforce positive behavior 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.

Other articles in this series:

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