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Revenge-Seeking Behavior in Children

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Often children who lash out and cause others pain do so because they are IN pain. Here you will learn what revenge-seeking behavior looks like in children and the most effective way to discipline a child who struggles in this area.

In our last two articles, we addressed two of the four goals of misbehavior: attention-seeking behavior and controlling behavior. This post will address the third type: revenge-seeking behavior.

Dinkmeyer and McKay, the authors of STEP Parenting (where this typology is explored), state that a child whose misbehavior is motivated by revenge is thinking: I can’t be liked; I don’t have power but I’ll count if I can hurt others as I feel hurt by life.” This distorted thinking colors how this type of child views the world. He sees the world as a hurtful place so he makes it his goal to strike first.

What revenge-seeking behavior looks like. Children who make it their goal to hurt others are not hard to find. Their pain is obvious by the pain they cause others. They reveal their struggle in the following ways:

  • Saying hurtful things such as, “You don’t even love me!” or “I hate you!”
  • Damaging something belonging to an authority figure (may say it was an “accident”)
  • Unprovoked injury of younger child/sibling (often a baby or toddler)
  • Mean-spiritedness
  • Extreme reactions to accidents against their person or possessions
  • Dismissing a gift or special treatment by a parent (unappreciative)
  • Focus on wanting to get even or things being “fair”

What revenge-seeking behavior feels like to you. Parents of revenge-seeking children often find themselves first feeling hurt which then can quickly change to resentment, retaliation and a desire to get even. You may even find yourself saying things like, “He is so ungrateful! He doesn’t appreciate anything.” “I would never have treated my parents like that!” or “I just don’t understand why he would do something like that.”

What his behavior tells you. This type of behavior is a sure sign that your child feels that he is of little worth or value in the world. He sees the world as hostile and himself as a victim of that hostility. To cope with such feelings, he lashes out and gives those around him a “taste of his own medicine.” Discouragement is his most frequent companion. He is often identified as the “black sheep” in the family – and once that identifying marker is hung on his neck, it is hard to remove. Once he feels he is bad, he will continue to act in such a way to confirm his perception that he deserves such a negative label.

How to correct revenge-seeking behavior. The most important corrective action you can take to help a child who misbehaves out of revenge is to create, build and maintain a positive, open relationship. Empathetic listening is one way you can help facilitate such a relationship. Listening without jumping in without quick fixes or judgments will go a long way in helping your child to begin to trade in those feelings of despair for hope. Knowing that someone is willing to listen with unconditional love is essential for these types of kids.

Another thing parents can do is affirm the child in the midst of his misbehavior. This may be difficult to do, but it can help your child break the revenge habit. You can say something like, “I don’t like what you said, but I still love you.” Remind yourself that your child’s hurtful behaviors or comments are not personal. Try to see them as reflective of the true struggles in his heart. Use the pain and hurt you feel as means to understanding the pain and hurt he is feeling.

Parents will also want to avoid punishments that are retaliative in nature. Taking away your son’s favorite toy for breaking his sister’s favorite doll may seem like a logical consequence that can be very appropriate in some circumstances for some children. However, for these children it is best to avoid any consequence or punishment that can be interpreted as retaliation. Instead, focus on having the child make amends. He can do chores around the house to pay for a new doll or he can sell some of his toys to make enough money for the purchase. Building and supporting intra-sibling relationships is an important task for parents of revenge-focused children.

Spending quality time with a revenge-oriented child (even if they reject or resist your advances) is very important. Shutting him out because of his behaviors will only confirm what he feels about himself. Focus on what you like about your child. Make a list of all of his positive traits and tune into those. It will help you empathize, listen and tap into the compassion he so fervently pushes away.

Next article: Display of Inadequacy

. Please note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional counseling. Read our full disclaimer here.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.


  • I have a autistic son who suffers from pychosis who has wrecked 2 houses and torn up 2 cars just to vent his rage and blame for everything. He has just come out of hospital. Has been hospitalised over 10 times in last 3 years and is currently homeless. I don’t have a son anymore.

  • Hi Laura,
    First I want to say thank you for your articles. That are inspiring to read, and gives me hope! I have a 3 1/2 y/o son who is controlling and revenge seeking. I find him more to be revenge seeking although some behavioral issues look like “control” if I’m not paying close attention to him. He is a type 1 diabetic and was diagnosed about a year ago. I fear, deep down, he feels “broken” or “a mistake” because of the many insulin injections and finger sticks he must have daily. I have been trying to work with him more patiently and spending more “special” time with him without his younger sister (he is aggressive with her). I have also been learning to stand firm on my consequences, and also giving him more responsibilities, ie, putting cups and small containers of water and juice in the fridge ao he can reach and make his drinks. This has seemed to help our relationship here recently, but his father seems to feel like he need more “structure” in his life. My husband is concerned that he maybe “spoiled” or that I am “too soft”. He wants him to listen the first time all the time. I had taken him to see a counselor to insure he was adjusting well to his condition, and she had said that ” although, his power struggles are not necessarily “normal” they were normal to what he is going thru. Its a difficult time in this house at the moment, but I have faith that God will see us through. Any advice you can give to help me/us, I would appreciate it. I especially love the part you mentioned about “prayer time in the morning”! We pray at night, at meals, and before we have a bible study, but i never thought to start the day with a prayer together! 🙂

    • Hi J N,
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Your sweet boy has a lot on his plate at his young age. Toddlerhood is a difficult time for child and parent to navigate without health issues on top of it. I think your ideas of giving him more options for control and choice are great. I would encourage you to do more of that – without going overboard. By handing him control at various points during the day, he won’t have to take it. It sounds like you have seen improvements but that your husband may not be on board with your approach. I would encourage you to sit down and talk to your husband (it may take more than one conversation) to address your differences parenting styles. This article may help start you off. I would encourage you to pray together about your parenting and ask that God would give you unity. It is so important. I hope that helps.


  • I want to thank you this was helpful for my teenage children when I read it I have controlling and revenge seeking children that I’m having a hard time making behave. This was inspiring

  • ONLY applicable to neurotypical children.
    Autistic children, this “fix” doesn’t work for- I HAVE an autistic child what gets revenge and have been trying this for 6-8 mos with her and her revenge behavior has gotten worse.
    Just wanted to point out that it’s not a cure-all fix, as it appears, as it also depends on the child.

    • Hi Jess – you are absolutely right – it does depend on the child. Thank you for sharing your experience so we all can learn. While I have not explored this website extensively, it does seem to have a large collection of articles on helping parents with autistic children:
      I hope you can find something that might be more helpful to you there.

      God bless,

  • This article is very helpful just like the controlling article. Thank you so much for sharing these tools with us and I will try my best to use them with my stepdaughter. I feel it is hard to use these tools when the child rejects My advances or plays along like she is sincere but when I walk away I see an evil grin. I’m not sure how to approach this situation when dealing with such an insincere child who has been manipulated by Other adults in her life to act the way she is acting or who have given her permission to act out these behaviors . But thank you again I will still attempt to use these tools

  • I am currently studying primary education at a community college where I live and I am also an expecting mother and I just want to say thank you for submitting this article because it was helpful with my studies and it also can apply for when I have my baby so thanks for taking out the time to share this information !

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