Home / Communication with Children / "If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail" by Debra Kessler, Psy.D.

"If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail" by Debra Kessler, Psy.D.

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – Abraham Maslow

Seeking out the assistance of a therapist is a desperate and courageous act.  Typically, for a parent, it means they have tried and failed to help their child behave, so they have friends, get along with siblings and family members, and achieve their potential at school.  Parents often state that what they want their child to get from therapy are “tools to manage their behavior.”  These pleas sound like “Why won’t he learn from his mistakes?” “Why can’t she see that what she is doing is getting in the way of her achieving her goals?” “Won’t the consequences teach him?”

Consequences can be effective at gaining compliance in some circumstances for some children.  In general, however, using consequences for “bad behavior” is like having only a hammer in your toolbox, so every problem looks like a nail.  Some children, however, may become more difficult, defiant, or non-compliant. A child may become resentful and hateful toward the parent who is now, in the child’s mind, someone who doesn’t understand them and is the enemy.  These feisty children, who take this stance, have further disruption in their relationship with their parents resulting in more consequences get imposed. Alternatively, the child may become devious, plotting ways to defy the parent’s limits. Consequently, these children may look compliant while there are honing their skills at being sneaky.  Either way, the goal of parenting is thwarted.

Behavior does not happen in a vacuum, but rather in response to something. Kids, by design, make us uncomfortable, because they are uncomfortable.  With their limited experience, perspective, insight, and ability to express themselves, they need an adult to help them accurately identify their triggers.  Our children are unique individuals, and even if we think they should have fun at the amusement park, or that restaurant isn’t too noisy, or it isn’t too late for our child, they may in fact be experiencing it much differently.   Our children need the adults in their lives to help them consider what is distressing to them and then learn about options for handling the experience.  As Alfie Kohn describes that “doing with” parenting is more effective than “doing to” parenting.

With the goal in mind of “doing with” our children to help them to be resilient, attention is turned from the “nail”, the child’s behavior, and redirected to what is triggering the child’s distress.  Sometimes, even when there is a trigger that is readily observable, like a scraped knee from falling off a bicycle, getting treated badly by a peer, or getting scared by loud thunder, the parental stance may be that the consequence of the experience teaches the child.  Here again, there is the over-reliance on the “hammer” and parents are stymied by why he hasn’t learned yet!  While this seems logical, this stance is at risk of teaching that the child is alone and has to figure out with their limited tools how to “do it right” in an environment, where they have little control over what happens to them.  Unfortunately, this leaves our children feeling alone, frustrated, and like they’re failures again!

So, if consequences for troublesome behavior aren’t working to “teach,” we haven’t yet found the right trigger and need to look further.  Triggers are highly individualized and children need their parents to notice with them.  Some factors that compromise all of us are sleep, hunger, illness, and allergies. Furthermore, like all of us, children build expectations based on past experiences and, therefore, may become triggered by events that are similar to events in the past that resulted in distress. Instead of targeting a behavior, the more important question is: “What is behind this behavior?”

My message to these concerned parents is there is hope.  Because the hammer has not worked, there are other tools that can work better.   Approaching a child’s “behavior” with wondering what is behind the behavior opens up a wide array of effective tools for the parent and ultimately the child. With this perspective, parents can more accurately help their children learn about themselves and, in turn, help the child get along better with others, achieve in school, be more resilient, and experience a more joyful relationship.


  1. Thanks for this helpful article!

  2. my problem is i have altered my parenting, i have tried many different techniques and all to no avail. its almost as if what ever i try to do to make different, consequence, reward, talking, empathy, you name it ive tried it, he seems intent on destroying his placement with me. all this behavior accured thru out his life, but when his mother died three yrs ago all of this behavior stopped. the violence, the urinating on himself at will, the lieing, the verbal assualts, all up until permanant gaurdianship in feb 2012. since then this is not the same child i have taken into my home and treated as my own.when asked he can tell you, right from wrong, the rules, the good choice, bad choice, all of it. what do we do as parents when nothing is helping? it continues to worsen rather then improve? we change our daily lives, our routines, our rules, to accomodate and infer comfort and commiment and specialness, and it all has no effect. all the professionals involved have no answers and put it all back on me. i am distressed and the other children in the home are continously verbally and emotionally attacked by this little boy, and now the verbal and emotional attacks are aimed at me with several attempted physical attacks on me. he has attacked the other two children physically and is extremely destructive, throwing furniture, punching walls, all out screaming and temper tantrums, and now i am finding sharp objects in his bed at night. four times in the last two weeks and the urinating on himself is back. all summer, pretty calm, new professional gets involved and the beginning of school, and i don’t recognize this child. unfortunately this is the child that was around, behaviorally wise while his parents were involved. his father a drug addict and woman beater along with abuse to this little boy, and his mother a closet drinker and dependant soley on a man for her life, and she drank herself to death at the age of 34 which is how i got this little boy. again all three yrs of being involved with dcf and court system to gain custody the behavior and violence and so forth all stopped. why the change? so venomous and intense?

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