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Alfred Adler's Theory of the Psychological Development in Children

by Michele Norfleet

Have you ever wondered about your child’s psychological development? Do you question what motivates him to do the things he does? In the early 1900’s, Alfred Adler put forth his theory of the psychology of child behavior. Psychologists still use his principles, and these principles are the underlying basis of the STEP Program, which is the Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, used in some parenting classes.

Adlerian Theory

According to Adler, children have a need to belong and they engage in purposeful and goal-oriented behavior to that end. As a Mom, your job is to encourage your child to take responsibility for her behavior and teach her to respect herself and others. When she speaks disrespectfully to you, if you have already laid the groundwork with her, she knows you will enforce the consequences. In this way, she learns to take responsibility for her behavior, and she will become a child, who, according to Adlerian theory, will feel encouraged about herself and will behave in helpful and cooperative ways.

Encouragement

To promote positive behavior in your child, Adler recommends encouragement, the act of acknowledging and appreciating your child's contributions. Encouragement can be as basic as saying, "Thank you" to your child for being helpful. When your preschooler carries his plate to the sink, for example, rather than telling him what a good boy he is, Adler says to be encouraging by letting him know he is being helpful and that you appreciate his help. On the other hand, if he drops food on the floor while carrying his plate and you focus on this rather than acknowledging his attempt, he feels discouraged and may behave in less acceptable ways in the future.

Goals of Misbehavior

Adlerian psychology describes four goals of misbehavior - attention, power, revenge and inadequacy. To determine your child’s goal, check your reaction to the behavior. If her goal is attention, you feel annoyed and want to remind her. When your daughter doesn't clean her room, if you remind her, explain why she needs to clean her room and offer rewards you may find it is all to no avail. In the end, her room is still a mess and you are still annoyed. All you have done is give her attention for her misbehavior. Your attention-seeking daughter continues the behavior because she is keeping you involved with her and she will take whatever attention she can get, even if it is negative. At times, you will see her behavior escalate into a power struggle. Now you feel angry. Your resolve to keep the upper hand increases and you punish her. When she feels that you have treated her unfairly, unfairly, her goal may shift to revenge to “get even” for the mistreatment she perceives. She yells, and tells you she hates you, which causes you to feel hurt or rejected. As this struggle between you two escalates, she may move to the goal of inadequacy. She feels defeated, gives up, and wants to be alone. You feel like giving up.

Natural Consequences

How can you break out of this vicious cycle? When dealing with misbehavior, Adlerian psychology emphasizes that the only behavior you can change is your own. However, by changing your reaction, you can effect a change in your child’s behavior. Encouragement, as well as natural and logical consequences, are effective ways of responding to misbehavior and show your child that she is valued, respected and a vital contributor to the family. Natural consequences are a natural result of an action. In the case of your daughter who refuses to clean her room, a natural consequence is that she cannot find her possessions. When she laments that she cannot find her favorite shoes you simply agree with her that those shoes would look great with her outfit and you hope she will be able to find them. Wish her "good luck" and walk away, giving her no attention for not cleaning her room and avoiding a power struggle. On the other hand, at some time in the future when she actually cleans her room, you encourage her by telling her how nice her room looks and how much you enjoy coming in to her space now.

Logical Consequences

A logical consequence is most effective when there is not a power struggle. Otherwise, your child perceives it as punishment. Logical consequences are those that you create and are a logical outcome of a behavior. For example, you can avoid conflict over homework issues by establishing in advance when homework time is, as well as arranging a logical consequence with his teacher. When he refuses to do homework, simply ask him what happens at school when he does not turn in his assignments. Remind him that he can choose to work now or explain to his teacher tomorrow why the assignment is not completed. When he comes home complaining about his "mean teacher" you are sympathetic towards his misery but supportive of the teacher. On days when homework is done in a timely manner find time to play a game or other activity together, not as a reward but as a logical consequence of having the time.

About the Author

Michele Norfleet is a freelance writer who writes on travel, home and garden and education topics. She has coauthored a handbook for teachers on school-wide discipline and has contributed tips for special-needs students in the basal curriculum for RCL Benziger. Norfleet holds a master's degree from Southern Illinois University and has experience as a special-needs teacher and speech pathologist.

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