Adlerian-based responses for the mental health counselor to the challenging behaviors of teens.
Parents have said that the teen years can be bewildering. Parents use expressions such as "The hormones are flowing" and "What's gotten into my child?" both humorously and sincerely. Physiologically, psychologically, and socially, the "teen years" can be a dramatic and volatile bridge into adulthood.
On the one hand, newspaper and television shows frequently report the many and varied successes of teens (Grunwald & McAbee, 1999). Obviously, parents, teachers, and civic leaders celebrate the numerous and wonderful teen accomplishments as these young people move through high school and, for many, the college years. These teenagers are the citizens and leaders of the future, and their productivity in all areas of life benefits us all.
In contrast, police logs and school records also reveal the turbulence experienced during the teenage years when teens' attitudes and behaviors can seem counterproductive, unsettling, at times even frightening. Some teens "turn the corner" and get themselves on track for useful and productive lives, while others fall into a life style of deviance and discord. How can such teen misbehavior be explained? What can be done to help these teens be productive rather than perturbed?
This article provides mental health counselors with a window of understanding into teen behavior and offers a slate of possible responses. Based on the work of Alfred Adler, Rudolph Dreikurs, and Frank Walton, this article promotes a positive approach to helping teens behave in ways that are life enhancing. Strategies presented here can afford the exasperated mental health counselor a method to explain teen behavior and a way to work to improve teen life. As stated by Dreikurs (1992):
The experiences by which a child develops his or her life plan are infinite in their variety. We cannot hope to recognize them all, but we can understand the conclusions which the child draws from his or her premises. Comprehension of the child's interpretation of himself or herself is the only basis for proper guidance and assistance in correcting a maladjustment or in improving a noticeable deficiency in the child. (p. 49)
AN OVERVIEW OF ADLERIAN PSYCHOLOGY
A Viennese contemporary of Sigmund Freud's, Alfred Adler introduced his theory of Individual psychology in the early 1900s (Manaster & Corsini, 1982), known today as Adlerian psychology.
Reacting to Freud's deterministic "drive theory" to explain human behavior, Adler viewed persons holistically, as people who are socially embedded, goal-directed, and able to move forward through constant deployment of their own living energy. In this connection, people pursue goals they created by their cognitive schema or "private logic." Goals, generally constructed around themes related to love, work, and friendship are what give people aspiration, conviction, hope, and inspiration. Movement in all human life is arranged around people's explicit and implicit pursuit of their goals for life. People create meaning in life as they pursue life's goals (Mosak & Maniacci, 1999).
Adler mentored Rudolf Dreikurs when they were associated at the medical school of the University of Vienna. Dreikurs introduced Adlerian psychology to the United States in the mid-1930s when he moved to Chicago and established a series of child guidance centers, taught at local universities, and established a global reputation for helping parents raise children using methods that were constructive, logical, and positive (Turner & Pew, 1978).
Dreikurs advanced his method in his book, Children the Challenge (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990). He not only promoted child-rearing principles such as natural and logical consequences, the value of encouragement, and the place of the new ideal of the "democratic family," but also he gave parents and educators an easily understood mechanism for understanding children's misbehavior (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990). Dreikurs believed that parents were obligated to determine when children were off-course in pursuing a "mistaken goal" so that they could then intervene and teach children how to make appropriate corrections.
According to both Adler and Dreikurs, the most compelling and common goal for children is that they be recognized, that they find a place where they belong (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990). By fitting in, they can find their station in the world, the position from which they can begin to move forward in life. In belonging, they establish a social connection. The nuclear family is the first social system of children, and it is their most solid foundation for pursuing the goal of "belonging."
Children reared in democratic families receive appropriate acknowledgment and encouragement from parents and siblings to move beyond the initial goal of recognition to the goal of negotiating life's challenges in love, work, and friendship. Children raised in a nondemocratic family may not experience proper recognition and encouragement and therefore may stall developmentally and become exclusively focused on their basic needs for attention and control. Dreikurs (1992) proposed that such children frequently become discouraged and may exhibit one or more of four "mistaken goals" as they search for their place in the scheme of life: (a) excessive desire for attention, (b) inappropriate need for power, (c) pursuit of revenge, and finally, (d) assumption of a position of inadequacy.
Frank Walton (1996) expanded upon Dreikurs' schema by suggesting that children's "mistaken goals" might be the foundation for later troubled behaviors that could unfold when they become young adults. Like Dreikurs, Walton is a global consultant and lecturer on teen behavior.
UNDERSTANDING AND RESPONDING TO THE BEHAVIOR OF MISBEHAVING TEENS
Walton (1996) expanded both Adler and Dreikurs' ideas related to teen misbehavior, and he advanced their views on the importance of parents, teachers, and counselors reexamining their speculations and conclusions about teens' behavior, because "things can always be different" than they seem.
Walton's suggestions for extending Dreikurs' schema for working with children to one that would work with teens are summarized in the Table. According to Dreikurs, children ages 2 to 11 display the mistaken goals in overt and easily recognizable ways. However, as children advance through their teens to young adulthood, their thoughts and behaviors become more complex and their mistaken goals are less obvious to adults (Manaster & Corsini, 1982). Consequently, mental health counselors must keep in mind that because teen behaviors are more complex, multifaceted, and less obvious, they must look beyond the surface and probe carefully in order to accurately interpret both the mistaken beliefs and goals of teen behavior.
Unique to Dreikurs' scheme, parents, teachers, and counselors are encouraged to examine first their own specific emotional reactions to the teen misbehavior. By asking How does your child's perceived misbehavior make you feel?, Dreikurs attempted to elicit the first clue to children or teen's goal in misbehaving (Grunwald & McAbee, 1999). Emotional responses of counselors, parents, or teachers provide a powerful clue about where we can start speculating about the goal of young people's misbehavior.
Further developing Dreikurs' work, Walton expanded the understanding of the four mistaken goals for teens--attention, power, revenge, and inadequacy (Walton, 1996). A fifth goal, excitement, is less developed and affirmed in the literature, and so it is not displayed in the Table. While confident teens forcefully strive to make a place for themselves in the world, discouraged teens may pursue one or more of these four mistaken goals. Discouraged or socially deviant teens sometimes convince themselves that it is better to be "the best at being bad" than to fail at trying to be good. Discouraged teens prefer social failure to anonymity and oblivion (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990). For some teens, pursuing a goal of social delinquency can be seen as better than pursuing no goal whatsoever because at least they will gain recognition.
In examining the Table, we see that misbehaving teens usually, but not always, proceed through the steps in linear fashion (Walton, 1996). If behavior is not corrected, teens can display a mistaken goal at any level, especially when important adults in their lives overlooked or were unaware when teen actions were directed at lower-level goals. For example, teens who feel unsatisfied in their need for attention may attempt to control an event or impose dominance through power tactics.
MISTAKEN GOALS AS A WAY TO ESTABLISH TEEN PRESENCE
Manaster and Corsini (1982) stated that the developmental years of 13-19 are, in essence, a time when teens establish a place in the world. In this critical period, the personality lowers its roots to secure its hold:
It is through a combination of personally, individually feeling that one belongs, with accurate perceptions that one does in fact belong, which is the thrust of adolescent development. And it would be remiss not to add the thrust of development throughout the remainder of the life cycle. (p. 93)
Consistent with Adlerian concepts that all life is both movement and goal-directed is the concept that teens "must find their place." They are compelled to secure a foothold. Most teens move forward on the useful side of life, set appropriate and reachable goals for themselves, and mature into adulthood with a sense of who they are and what they can contribute to society.
Some teens, however, cannot find a useful place in life because they see few constructive opportunities and so, discouraged, they turn instead to the useless side of life. Adopting the notion that pursuing any goal--even if it is delinquent, illegal, and troublesome--is preferable to no goal at all, they can at least gain recognition from adults and peers. These teens are pursuing "mistaken goals." Such pursuit leads teens into the mental health counselor's offices, either by parent decree or by court mandate. Walton (1996) gives us this summary:
While the power struggle easily accounts for the bulk of the disturbed relationships between adults and teenagers, the behavior of adolescents may be directed toward other goals that are mistaken. The word mistaken is used to indicate that the teenager operates on the mistaken notion that he or she must reach these goals to have some significance. The four goals that psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs proposed as mistaken goals of behavior in young children can be seen along with other goals in teenagers. (p. 19)
The four common goals of children's behaviors are the cornerstones of change. If parents, teachers, or counselors working with teens help them understand their behavior within the context of one or more of these goals, then the first step toward positive change can occur.
Dreikurs (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990) stated, "The desire for undue attention is the first mistaken goal used by discouraged children as a means for feeling that they belong" (p.58). Teens put great effort into being noticed or recognized in order to find a place of belonging when they feel insecure or when then need to affirm their presence in relation to others. For recognition, teens will use a number of strategies related to dress, manner, and behavior. Teens, more than children, are strident in getting attention from their contemporaries and are more interested in getting attention from their contemporaries than from adults, in contrast to children. Constructive responses to attention-needy teens are strategies to help them find useful ways to gain recognition so that in addition to drawing attention to themselves, they are contributing to the work and play of society (Walton, 1996).
Typically, discouraged children or teens who do not gain appropriate attention will move to the second stage of mistaken goal-directed behavior; they will seek power. Note that young people become discouraged when they do not get attention because without attention they fail to find a secure place in their group. If they cannot obtain security, status, and a sense of belonging in the group, they will seek to secure status within the group through their use power (Grunwald & McAbee, 1999).
Deviant behavior, or "acting out," may be the way discouraged teens tell us that they are trying to get attention and demonstrate power. Commonly, teen's struggle for power is characterized by behaviors that challenge their family or society's expectations in order to demonstrate that they shall not be constrained by their community's standards. The goal is to grant to themselves the power to seek their place when it is not granted by others. Manaster and Corsini (1982) stated that after attention,
the next demand, according to Dreikurs, is power. Children become competitive relative to their ability to have personal power, to achieve and accomplish and to dominate the social environment. They get into power contests, tussles, arguments, screaming matches, and other fights. (p. 89)
Some teens become vengeful when they are frustrated in their efforts to garner adequate attention or wield sufficient power. Vengeful teens develop mistaken beliefs that lead them to a strategy of "hitting back" against those whom they believe thwart their ideas about what they need. Revenge-oriented adolescents feel hurt by life, and so their behavior is designed to strike back, resulting in teens whose parents no longer like them (Walton, 1996).
Teens who act with revenge retaliate against both themselves and others. Social deviance can result and can lead to actions that require legal remedies. Teens who are discouraged have difficulty finding positive ways to find their place in society and to feel like they belong. In their deprivation, they distress adults by associating with peers in ways that are risky and self-defeating such as harassing teachers, avoiding school, using drugs and alcohol, and engaging in irresponsible sexual activity Christensen (1993).
Dreikurs identified a fourth mistaken goal: inadequacy. Feeling inadequate means feeling helpless. Teens give up when they have tried and failed to gain the attention and power that they feel they need and deserve. When the world does not respond to them as they desire, teens can assume a posture of helplessness and inadequacy. Manaster and Corsini (1982) summarized:
The fourth goal of children who misbehave is the worst of all: inadequacy. This is a difficult goal for some people to understand. Such children in effect state through their behavior that they cannot succeed in life, that they are helpless. Their goal is to display inadequacy, not even bothering to try to operate in a useful way. Such a child gains whatever scraps of attention are granted to the inadequate. If you do not try, you cannot fail. (p. 76)
A key characteristic in teens who display inadequacy as a general attitude toward life is that "they are highly concerned about falling short" (Walton, 1996, p. 20). In order to relieve themselves of responsibilities, these teens decrease their involvement in school, avoid spending time in their homes, and associate with other teens who have taken a similar position about life. Teens who feel inadequate can be found slumping in front of the television, hanging on street corners, or engaging in obvious self-destructive behaviors. In the worst situations, the ultimate goal of inadequacy can lead finally to teen depression, psychosis, or even schizophrenia when they give up completely, creating for themselves a kind of emotional suicide (Manaster & Corsini, 1982).
In summary, teens want to feel important, to belong, to matter. Most teens learn to be productive contributors in society, but some teens become defeated and can go astray. Mostly, teens raised in a democratic atmosphere at home and at school learn to feel encouraged and optimistic, because they know how to gain appropriate recognition and control over their lives. Most teens move toward socially useful behaviors and contribute to the common good. Most teens demonstrate courage, self-restraint, and a keen desire to move forward in life in useful and positive ways. These are the teens which society embraces and holds up as model citizens for our future.
In contract, there are teens who do not learn to contribute, who instead become discouraged, either because of unfortunate life situations or despite the quality of their upbringing. Some teens become demoralized in their attempt to find their place in life and decide instead to pursue mistaken goals. They misguidedly pursue recognition and power, but they fail to achieve constructive results, and so they participate instead on the useless side of life. Teens who are not redeemed by parents, teachers, and counselors can become both self-destructive and socially deviant. Corrective measures can be taken only when we identify and understand teens' mistaken goals.
Concerned about her son's behavior, mom brings Ron to you, a mental health counselor.
Ron is a junior in high school, the middle of three children, and lives with his father and mother in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood. Increasingly sullen, moody, and combative around the house, Ron frequently ignores requests by his parents and fails to complete his household chores. Recently, Mom overheard Ron say on the phone to one of his friends, "I won't do what my parents want, no matter what they say or do to me."
After a recent family meal, Ron's parents restated the list of chores for which each of their children were responsible and requested that they all do a better job of completing their tasks. In this way, they were making it clear that everyone in the family shares responsibility for their home. As the discussion progressed, Ron stood up, left the dinner table, and walked away saying, "This feels so childish. If I don't want to obey all these rules, who is going to make me?" Thoroughly provoked, Ron's mother chased after him and shouted for him to come back to the table. Instead, Ron locked himself in his room.
In addition to not wanting to complete his household tasks, Ron has become increasingly belligerent with his younger brother, who shares his room. In a recent argument, Ron almost came to blows with his sibling after he complained about Ron's messy life-style and the disorder in their room. Because they share responsibility for the room's cleanliness, the brother felt discouraged that it was always messy and confronted Ron about the problem. Ron yelled, "Damn it, this is my room, too, and no one is going to get in my way about the way I live!"
Ron's mother is angry and bewildered about Ron's increasingly sour mood. She thinks that her other children feel threatened by him and stay out of his way. She believes that Ron is a growing threat to the stability of the family. She feels powerless, does not know what to do, and asks you for help in dealing with Ron's increasingly challenging behavior.
CASE STUDY ANALYSIS
This case study is familiar to mental health counselors. Teens often change the home environment by their surly and volatile behavior. Family equilibrium and harmony are upset. Siblings appear to be in greater conflict. One or both parents, feeling concerned and responsible, turn to a mental health counselor for assistance. Predictably, the parent or parents want some type of immediate response to aid them in dealing with their challenging teen.
In responding to this case study, be reminded of Adler's premise that Ron's underlying goal must be understood before any change can be expected. Because Ron's behavior is purposeful and goal-directed, and because he is pursuing something of high value even though he knows that his actions disturb the family, he is not likely to be easily persuaded to stop misbehaving. Ron is behaving in contrary ways with reason and purpose. Mental health counselors will recognize that the first step in offering assistance to Ron's mother is to help her understand the possible unconscious goal or goals behind Ron's behavior. When the goal is uncovered, a meaningful response can lead to more appropriate ways for Ron to behave (Grunwald & McAbee, 1999).
For a starting point for understanding the goal or goals underlying Ron's behavior in the home, see Table. Mental health counselors would establish rapport with Ron's mother and gain a clear understanding of her description of the problem, then they would show her that his behavior is goal-directed, that Ron is likely using his behavior to "say something" to his parents.
Mental health counselors have several ways to identify teens' goals for misbehavior, one of the most powerful of which is to look at what parents do when their children misbehave, paying specific attention to how parents emotionally respond (Dreikurs, 1992). It is vital that we steer parents away from any response that could result in a combat of wills or that could escalate to violence. Parents' emotional reactions to teen misbehavior reveal important clues to teen intent and message. By monitoring parents' emotional reactions, mental health counselors can instruct parents and teachers to identify the "hidden reasons" for the misbehavior and can help them to develop appropriate responses accordingly (Grunwald & McAbee, 1999).
Mental health counselors who investigate Ron's parent's emotional reactions to his behavior would see that they have arrived at their "boiling point" and, at times, feel like "slapping him up side the head." Parents in general, and Ron's parents in particular, believe they are out of options and can rely only upon serious punishment. Investigations into parent reactions to teen misbehavior clearly reveal that a power struggle is enacted between parents and teens. This information is the mental health counselor's first clue. In frustration, the family is fighting. Arguments at the dinner table can precipitate a physical altercation in an effort to control the misbehaving teen.
Further inquiry reveals Ron's mother's emotional response to his behavior. She reports that feelings of anger and fear are intensifying in herself, her husband, and her children in relation to Ron's behaviors. Each episode with Ron seems to inch his defiance in the family a level higher. This family has never experienced such a challenge to its unity with the other children, and Ron's mother worries that this problem may be unsolvable.
Two clues are now exposed. First, Ron's behavior and his parents' response indicate that they appear to be locked in a power struggle. Second, the fact that they might be in a power struggle is confirmed by the emotional responses of the family in general to Ron's specific behaviors. When we examine the Table, we see that Ron appears to be chasing a mistaken goal of power. As a high school junior, Ron no longer wants to be "bossed" by his parents or anyone else, and instead wants to be the boss of his own life. Ron seeks to obtain greater ownership over his own affairs and to enjoy more autonomy in his lifestyle. This does not come as a surprise. A desire for autonomy and independence is a natural progression, and the stage for the challenge is usually the home where conflict generally pertains to daily routines rather than key value issues (Ambert, 2001).
Mental health counselors can help parents such as Ron's mother speculate about the possible goal of the behavior, using the Table to help glean more appropriate strategies to deal with misbehaviors when they occur. Certainly, power struggles between teens and their parents must avoid shouting and violence of any form and can be handled courteously and respectfully. Parents must first model positive behaviors to reduce conflict so that teens can learn the same. Firm, calm, clear, and kind guidance will best serve the struggling teen to learn appropriate ways to gain power and respect. In a respectful environment, teens like Ron can learn new roles with all family members. In return for fewer imposed parental rules, the idea of responsibilities toward each other can emerge, with attendant consequences when family members do not honor their obligations. In addition to Ron, the other children could benefit from family meetings where they can learn their current and future roles as members of their family. Family meetings are essential if families are to be sanctuaries of calmness, order, and respect (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990). Family meetings were also encouraged by Manaster and Corsini (1982), when they wrote:
the anger and violence that are a natural concomitant of an undemocratic family, the sneaking about and lying so common in many families, the distrust and bad feelings that are inherent in many families and, above all, the constant bickering found in every undemocratic family can be replaced by order, good humor and good relationships simply by using the family council properly (p. 232).
Dreikurs' (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1990) explanation of the four mistaken goals of discouraged children, expanded by Walton (1996) to focus on teens, offers mental health counselors a useful vantage point for speculation about the motivations of teen behavior. Parents seek help to correct their teens' disturbing behavior, and Dreikurs and Walton explain these motivations and provide clues to help improve teen life and the relationships between the generations. Using the content in the Table, mental health counselors can find clues to help parents answer questions such as: What is the problem? What can family members do when teens misbehave? How do parents and other family members feel in response to the teen's behavior? Answers to these questions can reveal the teen goals. Understanding these goals is the first step in developing an appropriate response.
Mental health counselors who work with teens and their families must keep a watchful eye to the fact that some of what parents label "disturbing behavior" by their teenage sons or daughters is actually the young person's cry for greater interdependence and responsibility. Most teens want success not only for themselves and their peers, but for their family members as well. When teens are stifled, discouragement can set in, and they can rebel. Mental health counselors can minimize some confrontations between teens and their parents by assuming the position of coach to parents to help them learn to offer increased teen responsibility in the service of greater interdependence in the family. Better communication and increased support for teen autonomy and responsibility can result in more positive goals and more useful behaviors by teens. Walton (1996) offers us the guidance that we need in such matters:
To encourage another human being is to convey to him or her that you have faith in him or her as he or she is. The teenager watches closely for signs that he or she has what it takes to bridge the gap from childhood to adulthood. It is highly encouraging for him or her to feel the quiet confidence of his or her mother and father that conveys the message, "Knowing you, you will find a way to handle the problem that faces you." (p. 17) Table 1. Alderian-Based Responses to Teen Behavior In response to the And tends to And if the teen's teen's behavior, if react by: response is: the counselor, parent, or teacher feels: Annoyed Stopping to pay Stops temporarily. Irritated attention but later resumes Worried Allowing same or another Guilty interruptions disturbing Spending undue behavior. time with the teen Seeking to avoid the teen Angry Arguing. Intensifies Provoked Fighting. Giving behavior. Defiant Challenged in. Thinking: "You compliance. Threatened can't get away Passive power. Defeated with that." I'll Feels he or she make you." has won when Wanting to be parents and/or right. other family members are upset. Hurt Retaliating. Retaliation Disappointed Getting even. intensifies. Disbelieving Thinking "How Escalates the Disgusted could you do this same behavior or to me?" chooses another. Despair Giving up. Retreats further. Hopeless Doing things for Passive. No Helpless resident. Over- improvement. No helping. response. The teen's goal is The belief behind The parent, likely: the teen's teacher, or behavior is counselor's possibly: alternatives include: Undue attention "I count (belong) "I care about you (to keep others only when I'm and will spend busy or to get being noticed or time with you special service). getting special later." Give service. I'm only positive attention important when at other times. I'm keeping you Avoid special busy with me." service. Say it only once, then move on. Encourage. Plan special times. Ignore, if necessary. Set-up nonverbal signals. Power (to be "I belong only Don't fight and boss) when I'm boss or don't give in. in control, or Leave and calm proving that no down. Withdraw one can boss me. from the conflict. You can't make Do the me." unexpected. Be firm and kind. Act, but don't talk at length, Take time to decide what to do. Let policies and routines be the boss. Develop mutual respect. Give limited choices. Set reasonable and few limits. Practice follow- through. Encourage. Redirect to positive power. Include teen in the change process. Revenge (to get "I don't think I Deal with hurt even). belong, so I'll hurt feelings. Avoid others as I feel feeling hurt. Find hurt. I can't be out what is liked or loved." bothering the teen. Help teen feel safe. Avoid punishment and retaliation. Build trust. Use reflective listening. Share your feelings. Make amends. Show you care. Act. but don't talk at length. Encouragement of strengths. Inadequacy (give "I can't belong Show faith. up and want to because I'm not Encourage small be left alone). perfect, so I'll steps. Stop all convince others criticism. not to expect Encourage any anything of me. I positive attempt, am helpless and no matter how unable. It's no small. Focus on use trying assets. Don't give because I won't up. Help find do it right." avenues for success. Don't get drawn into excessive care taking and over- helping.
Ambert, A. (2001). Families in the new millennium. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Christensen, O. (1993). Adlerian family counseling. Minneapolis: Educational Media Corporation.
Dreikurs, R. (1992). The challenge of parenthood. New York: Penguin Group.
Dreikurs, R., & Soltz, V. (1990). Children the challenge. New York: Penguin Group.
Grunwald, B., & McAbee, H. (1999). Guiding the family: Practical counseling techniques (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Accelerated Development.
Manaster, G., & Corsini, R. (1982). Individual psychology: Theory and practice. Chicago: Adler School of Professional Psychology.
Mosak, H., & Maniacci, M. (1999). A primer of Adlerian psychology: The analytic-behavioral-cognitive psychology of Alfred Adler. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel.
Turner, J., & Pew, W. (1978). The courage to be imperfect: The life and works of Rudolf Dreikurs. New York: Hawthorn Books.
Walton, F. (1996). Winning teenagers over in home and school: A manual for parents, teachers, counselors and principals. Columbia, SC: Adlerian Child Care Books.
Roger A. Ballou, Ph.D., is dean of students and apart-time instructor in the University Honors Program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He is also a marriage and family therapist in private practice. Email: Roger.A.Ballou@uwrf.edu