Video Lesson by Susie Walton
Written Lesson by Kathryn Kvols

 As we’ve been learning in all the previous modules leading up to this one, a child who is misbehaving is actually trying to communicate to us that they have a need that isn’t being met.   When a child feels their need is not being met, they often turn to “mistaken goals” (or “mistaken beliefs” as they are referred to in the following video). These goals are mistaken because they are an attempt by the child to get their real need met, but they are doing so in an ineffective way. These mistaken goals are attention, power, revenge, and inadequacy.

3 Steps to Redirect Behavior

Parents unknowingly react in ways that reinforce unproductive behavior. For example, we have all seen the child in the grocery store who whines for a cookie (she was probably mine!). Mom or dad say, “ no” a few times. The child turns her whine up a notch or two and, presto! The child is given the cookie! The parent has just reinforced the child’s misbehavior.

We need to learn how to redirect misbehavior. If we just stop the behavior by threatening, yelling or punishing, the behavior will either escalate or the child will learn to conform because she is afraid of the repercussions. However, if we learn how to redirect the behavior, we teach the child to use more cooperative communication in order to get her needs met.

There are three steps to redirecting children’s behavior. They are:

  1. Check your emotional state.
  2. Understand what your child is trying to communicate.
  3. Meet the unmet need or redirect the behavior.

Step 1. Check your emotional state.

Have you noticed how your mental state can escalate a situation? I have reacted to a situation where my child made a simple request and my reaction caused it to escalate to the point where my child dissolved into a puddle of tears. Checking in with yourself before you respond to a child is imperative to effective parenting. Parents who are stressed tend to be less emotionally available for their children and less tolerant of the child’s challenging behaviors, and therefore cause the situation to escalate more often.

The ideal first step is for you to self-reflect before you respond to your child. In those moments of self-reflection, you tune into yourself and ask yourself these questions:

What is my state of mind right now?

Am I calm, loving and accepting or am I angry, frustrated and critical?

If you are calm, loving and accepting, you can go on to the next step. If you are not in a calm, loving and accepting place, STOP! You will accomplish little by approaching your child in this state of mind. Ask yourself, “What do I need? Am I tired? Am I overwhelmed? Am I mad about something else?”  Take care of yourself by doing one of the following. Take a break, breathe, count, do whatever you have to do to center yourself and be the compassionate parent you want to be. You will achieve a more effective outcome if you take time to do a mental check in.

Step 2- Understand what your child is trying to communicate.

Children usually misbehave because their needs are not being met.

  • Need to feel valuable
  • Need to feel respected
  • Need to experiment and explore
  • Physical need (tiredness, hunger, or sickness)
  • Need to belong or be included
  • Need to be taught a skill
  • Need to feel supported
  • Need to feel wanted
  • Need to feel powerful/influential
  • Need to feel loved
  • Need to be stimulated
  • Need to be heard

Your job as a parent is to meet their needs and in the process, they will be learning how to meet their own needs as they grow. When a child feels their need is not being met, they often turn to mistaken goals. These goals are mistaken because they are an attempt by the child to get their real need (to belong, to feel loved etc.) met, but in an ineffective way. Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, in his book “Children the Challenge”, described the four mistaken goals. They are attention, power, revenge and inadequacy.

Until you understand the goal of your child’s misbehavior, you can’t be sure how to redirect their behavior. Unfortunately, no single discipline method will be effective in every situation. You must take time to think about why your child is misbehaving in order to determine what method to use.

One way to understand their goal is to determine how the child is inviting you to feel. You will notice in the following chart that each goal makes you feel differently. Please review the following “Mistaken Goal Chart” for an overview of all four mistaken goals.


Step 3 – Meet the unmet need or redirect the behavior.

Discover what the child’s need is and meet or address it. For example, if you are shopping and your child starts misbehaving, he may be bored. One way to solve this is to include him in on the shopping. Give him an item that he needs to find in the aisle. Or ask him to give you five cans of soup. Both of these examples are teaching him and meeting his needs for stimulation and inclusion.

Frequently, what looks like misbehavior, isn’t.  Sometimes the child needs to be taught a skill or reminded of a skill. Teach your child a skill and make sure he has consistently demonstrated that skill BEFORE you can expect that he will use it. For example, you will have to teach, demonstrate, role play, and model conflict resolution numerous times before you can expect your child to successfully navigate the world of win-win negotiation.

Remember: All misbehavior is your child trying to communicate an unmet need. When your child gets his/her needs met i.e. feels understood, valued, powerful etc., there is less need to misbehave.  This is true of you, too!

For a printable version of this lesson, please click the following link:

Mistaken Goals Introduction

To learn more about Kathryn Kvols and her work, please visit