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How to Address 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 in children.

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”

Note: Children with revenge-seeking behavior often have underlying issues related to attachment, trauma or developmental difficulties. It is important for parents to rule out any concurrent neurological or developmental issues. Please see the comment section for links to resources for children struggling with autism, emotional regulation or sensory processing.

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. He may have experienced a loss, a disruption in attachment or another trauma. 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

These children can be a challenge to parent as their presence is very hard and rejecting. Getting beneath that hardened exterior is a parents primary goal. Here are some ways you can parent a child exhibiting revenge-seeking behavior.

1) Practice empathy

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.

You will also need to spend time accessing your own empathetic stance toward this child. I suggest that parents practice something called “compassionate observation.” This is a time when you unobtrusively observe your child and focus on better days. Maybe when they were a baby or a time when you felt connected. Access those previous feelings and pull them into the present. If it is not your child (such as in foster care or kindred care), think about the challenges and difficulties that life has handed this child from no fault of their own. This is a good practice whenever you start to feel disconnected or resentful.

2) Actively affirm the child

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.

3) Don’t punish

Parents will also want to avoid consequences 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.

4) Make time to connect and engage

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. Seek to find shared interests and activities and proactively engage in them, even if he resists. Unconditional love and strong parent-child relationship is the bridge to healing for these children.

Next article:  Display of Inadequacy

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to residents of Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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25 Comments

  • I have a daughter that is 11 it hasn’t been easy for us husband died by suicide we were stuck at parents i and busy trying to just survive. She is struggling I am trying to be patient but have no help from anyone. I am exhausted exhausted and she needs my attention I try but find I get irritated easy. She destroys my house and she won’t even try and help. Please please help I need help

    • Hi Alison
      I am so sorry to hear of your great loss and the struggles you are having. While I cannot provide crisis counseling, you can text the word HOME to 741741 and you will be connected to a crisis counselor who can help you find some resources in your community. You are not alone.

      Looking ahead, I would suggest grief counseling for yourself and your daughter. Also, some kids find martial arts a way to learn self-control and release emotions. It is also really important to take care of yourself at at time like this- even if it feels like it is taking you away from things that seem more pressing. Taking care of yourself can look like going for a walk, reading a book, prayer, talking with a friend, reaching out to a support system in the community or a church, having a cup of tea, exercise.

      I have said a prayer for you. Have hope. And please reach out to the crisis textline. You are not alone.
      Laura

  • Hello. When my 12 year old son watches tv shows/movies with us, and a bully meets their doom, he sometimes makes comments like “good” or “he deserved it!” which kind of bothers me because I often wonder if this mentality is just words or is it a malicious side of him? Otherwise, he’s a sweet kid and a great person… maybe I’m just thinking to deep about it? Thanks
    D

    • Hi D,
      I understand your struggle. It can be hard to tease out what things are “yellow” flags and what is just a part of normal development. I do applaud you for caring about your son’s character and for being on the lookout for deeper issues. It might help to know that some children have a very developed sense of justice (gifted children in particular can be highly sensitive to issues related to justice and equality). If your son is rather rule-oriented and “by the book” these statements during movies could just be a manifestation of that trait. However, if you are curious about his thought process, it might be helpful to explore it with your son a bit. It’s possible that in real life he is noticing that bullies get away with hurtful things. You could say something like, “I noticed that you seemed kind of happy when bad things happened to ___________. I get it. It can feel good when a bully doesn’t get away with hurting others. Real life isn’t always like that though, is it? What have you noticed about what happens to bullies?”

      I hope that helps. Take care,
      Laura

  • I think I am/was the revengeful child. Now an older person, I’ve done more harm than good, specially to myself. Even with theraphy, I feel I can’t get out of this pattern. Any hints/tips/orientation on how to deal with this behavior when older?

    • Hi John,
      I am glad to hear that you are exploring this issue in therapy. As the article indicates, this type of behavior is often the result of some sort of loss or hurt. I would talk to your therapist about this and ask if they have training in trauma-informed treatment and if they think that might be right for you. We often think of trauma in terms of big “T” kinds of things (natural disasters, physical assault, sudden loss or illness, etc). But the little “t” traumas can be sometimes hiding underneath our externalizing pain.

      I hope that helps,
      Laura

    • You have to stop rejecting yourself when you do something wrong. You have to start remembering that you felt unwanted and unloved when you did something wrong so you started to turn inward on yourself and reject yourself. The goal is to set calendar alarms on your phone throughout the day which will help you to empathetically love yourself through all of your daily mistakes and failures without rejecting yourself. Forgive yourself daily

  • this fits with my 8-year-old daughter. Since about age 4 she has been acting out like this and I cannot figure out why. i have worked hard to raise her to be respectful and before this behavior started, she was polite and respectful. there is no abuse and the only trauma she has had is loved ones passing away. she has scared me with a lot of her actions, she is seeing a doctor and currently medicated. Everyone in our home fears what she will do when she gets angry. her anger can pop up over just a look of a question as to how she is feeling. everything sets her off. I do not understand it. I know she can me nice and sweet, she is very loving, and her emotions are so big. I just want to help her but it seems everywhere I look it just makes her more angry and vengeful.

    • Hi Tiffany,
      You say she is seeing a doctor and is on medication. Is she in counseling as well? That might be a helpful addition. Also, it is hard to tell from the information available, but I wonder if she may be struggling more with emotional regulation rather than revenge-driven behavior? You say that is started at age 4. It is not uncommon for dysregulation to become noticeable at that age as it is typically the age at which kids enter structured school environments. There are a number of things that can trigger dysregulation. This video is very helpful in breaking down those triggers. Maybe it will help you gather some more information about what is driving her anger. Keep digging. The answers are there.
      Laura

      • Depending on the doctor she sees her diagnoses is ADHD with ODD or DMDD. Due to covid there are no in person therapies near us. and over the video call she just ignores them, will not talk much past saying hi. i have been told that her symptoms will become more difficult to deal with and honestly, I do not know what I will do to help her then. I get one of two reactions when we have to see a new doctor, 1. I’m blowing everything out of context, or 2. lock her up, or deal. and the doctors tell me once they see her blow up and start to fight that there has to have been abuse or trauma. in her life before any episodes my grandmother passed when she was just 2, and she had been in a car accident where she got some minor bruises from her car seat restraint. I miss how she was, i don’ t tell her that as I feel it might make her angry that I don’t like who (in reality how she acts) is now. I don’t give up on her though. If I do who will be there.

        • Sometimes in situations like this, where families feel stuck, it is helpful to try a very different approach. I am wondering if Child Centered Play Therapy might be a good option to try. It is an approach to therapy that is not “problem oriented.” I think your daughter might benefit from that a lot. The goals of CCPT is support emotional and cognitive development in the child while also helping them build confidence, agency and resilience. This link has a database of counselors certified in CCPT. The best way to use it is to put your state in the field labeled “location.” Most play therapy models involved individual sessions for the child but about once a month the therapist typically meets alone with the parent which would give you some support as well.

          I hope that helps,
          Laura

  • 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 Therese,
      I am so sorry to read this about your son. It must be so incredibly distressing and frightening for all involved not to mention stressful. Have you looked into if your son might also have PANS/PANDAS? There might be underlying causes to the psychosis that you are not aware of and certain medications and other remedies might help. I am speaking from experience with twins who both have this.

  • 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.

      Laura

  • 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.

  • 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 !

    • Hi Laura.
      Thank you for writing these very insightful articles on the underlying goals of misbehaviour, I have found them very enlightening!
      I have two sons who were both adopted from an orphanage overseas, a 4yo (adopted at age 1) and an almost 8 yo (adopted at age 5). They experienced a lot of trauma and have deep-seated insecurities they are struggling with due to their perceived “abandonment”.

      My younger son has always sought control, ever since he was a baby. He is headstrong and had always been attention-seeking (due to attachment issues) and controlling (his nature I believe since this was much more than his peers, even as an 18 month old!) Around age 3 he became revenge-seeking, he is very hot-headed and has all these behaviours as part of tantrums when he does not get the slightest thing his way. He struggles with emotional regulation at home in general, but is very polite compliant and a model student at the preschool daycare he attends fulltime! Which makes me wonder if its us parents who cause this to come out? Does it sound likely??

      My older son has experienced complex trauma, abuse, and had also always been attention seeking due to insecure attachment. He had also always been controlling (I believe because he felt powerless in the orphanage, and also he has anxiety), but was not originally revenge-seeking. He has become extremely revenge-seeking in the last 6 months though! While his attention-seeking behaviour has improvedD his controlling and revenge-seeking behaviours have dramatically increased. I dont know if its because we started ADHD stimulant/nonstimulant medication around this same time? Or because he has hit a developmental milestone (he is between 5-7 yo developmentally, on the younger side emotionally). Or if its due to something we are doing as parents? Does anything in our story give you an indication what might be the cause?

      Because both of our sons are struggling with dramatically Increased revenge-seeking behaviour lately, I an questioning whether its something out of our control like the chileren’s past, or if its possible/likely that my husband and I are not meeting their emotional needs for positive connection, felt-safety and control, and feeling valued?

      Any advice on helping us figure out if we need to change our parenting techniques, or which factor could be causing this sudden but sustained uptake would be so appreciated! I want to make sure we are doing the best by them and I know we adults can be blind to our own issues at times…

      • Hi JL,
        Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It is clear how much you love your children and how committed to them you are. I would suggest that difficult behaviors at home and not school your younger son is displaying are actually a reflection of the safety your son feels with you. We tend to show our “real colors” to the people in our lives who unconditionally love us. I would not assume it is because you are not meeting his need. That being said, if he does need help with emotional regulation below are a few resources that might help you in this area. Modeling and partnering with children who are having powerful emotions is often very helpful. But keep in mind that a child with a trauma history can become more emotionally disorganized when adults try to intervene. It can be a fine line that only you can know.
        link
        link
        link
        I assume that your oldest son is in treatment with a trauma informed therapist? If not, I would suggest that you seek one out – if possible, one who has worked with adopted children. Because of his trauma history, new challenges that seem to pop up out of “nowhere” are completely normal. The oscillation of attention-seeking to revenge-seeking behaviors seems to indicate a pull closer – push away dynamic that is not uncommon in children with a history like his. However, it is always good to investigate underlying causes: issues with peer/ sense of safety at school, educational delays (this is the age when academic struggles can emerge), underlying medical condition, etc. In the meantime, continue to provide the support, safe environment, unconditional love, and gentle limits, you are giving them.
        I hope that helps,
        Laura