Disclaimer: If you are concerned that you cannot manage your child’s behavior on your own, please seek the immediate advice of a licensed medical or mental health professional. Call 911 or your local crisis intervention agency if you or your child are in an emergency mental health situation.
TOP FIVE REASONS FOR BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS IN KIDS AND WHAT TO DO
First, check if your child’s behaviors are due to hunger, thirst, or sickness. If it is not, proceed to the top five reasons for behavior problems.
1. The child begs for something or refuses something to gain a sense of control over their environment.
Many kids feel they have little control because adults often tell them what to do and expect them to follow directions, even when the child disagrees.
Imagine your day was planned by someone else, and you were frequently told, “no, you can’t do that, you can’t have that, you must stop that, or you must do this now!”
Feeling in control of one’s life is an essential key to happiness. Some kids do whatever they can to feel in control. Even if that means lying to get what they want, breaking rules, refusing to follow your directions, throwing a tantrum to get out of something or to obtain something, or arguing with you.
What can you do about your child’s attempts to gain control?
Be Proactive Before the Challenging Behavior Starts:
- Give your child as much control over their environment as possible.
- Allow them to pursue their interests, play how they want to, get creative, and make a mess.
- Ensure they are not hurting themselves or anyone else, disrespecting others, damaging property, or being inconsiderate of others.
- Include choices in their day, ask their opinion about things, and let them know what will happen next.
- When your child can’t have something, explain the reason, empathize with their feelings, and offer an alternative when possible. You can also tell them when they can have what they requested (e.g., yes, you can have a cookie after dinner).
- Set expectations ahead of time (a chart may be helpful – i.e., complete homework, set the table, take out the garbage).
- Allow your child to earn privileges for cooperative behavior rather than threatening to take privileges away.
- A brief schedule of expectations puts the ball in their court. It gives them the power to work for the things they enjoy.
- It also gives them more control over their environment. They can learn to refer to their list, rather than relying on you to remind them of their next step.
- If possible, allow your child to alternate non-preferred and preferred activities. Examples include: completing homework, playing a computer game, setting the table, eating dinner, using iPad, taking out the garbage, playing a board game, getting ready for bed.
- When your child feels they have control, they will spend less time trying to gain control.
- Be flexible with choices, encourage strengths, but also make sure to stick to your rules.
- If you have a rule and you are set on it (e.g., first homework, then computer time), don’t spend time negotiating or arguing with your child. This will teach them that they can get you to bend the rules if they keep asking and pressing.
What should you do if your child has a tantrum when they cannot have something they want?
Do not give your child their way due to a tantrum. Instead, ensure your child’s and others’ safety during the tantrum.
You may provide some stress-relievers to help your child calm down, such as music, a stress ball, a stuffed animal, a blanket, water, a hug, an empathetic statement, etc.)
It is helpful to create a cozy area for children to destress during a tantrum or other emotional upset. Here is an example in the image below:
Once your child is calm, resume with the expectation (e.g., first throw your garbage out, then play video games).
2. The child is trying to feel good about themselves and validate their worthiness.
When kids feel left out, unseen, or rejected, they may do inappropriate things to get others to notice or react.
For example, there are students who:
- always crack jokes in class
- make mean faces at other children
- keep saying something inappropriate (and laughing) no matter how many times you ask them to stop
- picking on small or vulnerable students
- doing something dangerous to look cool
- criticize others
Parents and teachers can utilize empathy, self-esteem-building activities, positive attention, reinforcement, and boundaries with rules/expectations. These are proactive approaches to reducing challenging behaviors.
How can we help children feel good about themselves, so they don’t turn to unhealthy behaviors just to be noticed?
- When possible, remove attention from the negative behaviors and focus on the positive ones.
- If your child is getting the attention of their siblings or classmates for inappropriate behavior, encourage the other children not to pay attention to the behavior.
- Work with your child to build their self-esteem through encouragement, and building upon their strengths and interests.
- Give your child positive attention when they display positive behaviors and making good choices.
- Provide your child with a positive role models whenever possible. Role models can show them how to act with internal confidence, without validation from others.
- It is also helpful to set rules regarding behavioral expectations such as:
- It is also helpful to phrase rules and directions in the positive, by telling your child what to do, instead of what not to do (e.g. look up here vs, stop looking out the window).
- Focus on your child’s strengths and give them plenty of opportunities to pursue their interests.
- Do not tolerate any bullying or teasing in your household or classroom.
- Remind children who are bullying/teasing that they must treat everyone with respect. Direct them to another room if they continue being cruel to others, or leave the room if that is a possibility.
- Teach your children that your family is a team. Everyone needs to be supportive of each other.
3. The child has a need to move, burn energy, or stimulate one or more of their senses in some way.
An example would be a child who is constantly running and jumping on furniture in the house. You may ask them to stop, settle down, sit down, etc., but the behavior continues.
What can you do to meet your child’s sensory needs?
- Give your child plenty of outlets to burn energy. Can they jump rope, jump on a trampoline, be your running partner, or do a dance video? Give your child regularly scheduled outlets for exercise.
- Again, post house rules (e.g., walk nicely in the house), and give positive attention for following those rules.
- When you can, provide your child with meaningful activities (utilizing their strengths). This will help occupy their time.
- With unstructured time, children are more likely to run and jump in the house. When they are engaged in a hands-on task, focus improves, and they naturally settle down. Hands-on activities may include an art project, helping mom cook in the kitchen, or learning how to use the computer.
- Many children in school also demonstrate better focus and calmer behavior when engaged in a hands-on activity.
4. The task you gave your child is more than they can handle independently, at this period of their development.
Examples could include:
- a four-year-old who is refusing to clean up the big mess in their room
- a seven-year-old who is refusing to do their homework
- a five-year-old who keeps running away or grabbing toys in the supermarket line.
Organizing belongings, focusing on homework for long stretches of time, or waiting quietly without moving or touching anything, can be challenges for young children or those with ADHD (or other needs).
What can you do to prevent giving your child more than they can handle?
- Try to understand what your child is capable of before putting demands on them. For example, a four-year-old will need support to clean a large, messy room.
- Help break large tasks up into manageable steps for your child, with brief breaks in between steps if needed.
- Teach your child to clean up one toy before taking out another. This way they don’t get overwhelmed with cleaning up a lot at once.
- You can also give specific instructions to make the task manageable. For example: put the block in the bin and put those three shirts in the drawer, then we can play a game).
- Complete chores with your child when you can. You can spend time together while teaching them the importance of a life skill.
- Some kids benefit from a written or visual list of steps for their task, with short breaks after completing a couple of things on the list (e.g., put toys in bin, put away clean clothes, play a favorite game for five minutes, put dirty clothes in basket, throw any garbage away, etc.).
- You might consider breaks during lengthy homework assignments, too (e.g., complete the first 10 problems, take a five-minute break and complete the next ten).
- If waiting in line at the store is challenging, you can bring something or do something to occupy your child in the line.
5. The child is frustrated/angry about something and cannot communicate their concerns to you.
Some children act aggressively (to themselves and/or others) when they can’t tell/explain how they feel or what they need. They may hit, kick, push, bite, bang their head, throw things, etc.
Aggressive behavior can appear in young children or those who struggle with communication. We sometimes see frustration due to communication challenges in children with speech/language impairments, autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disabilities.
Some children also can have difficulty expressing themselves due to anxiety or a fear of being judged, yelled at, punished, or ignored.
What can you do about it your communication concerns?
- For children who cannot express themselves due to speech/language impairments or simply being young in age, utilize pictures, objects, gestures, etc. to help them tell you how they feel or what they want.
- Offer them choices by showing them the objects you are offering and give alternatives, rather than just saying “no” to their requests and behaviors.
- Teach them an alternative to express frustration, such as squeezing a stress ball, biting a safe object (for children who bite when frustrated), pointing to a picture of how they feel, drawing an image to represent their emotions, or writing their feelings down.
- For children who do not have speech/language needs but do not express themselves due to anxiety, fear, or inexperience, help build their self-esteem by showing them that their thoughts, feelings and frustrations are valid and matter.
- Focus on your child’s strengths, and try empathizing with what they may be going through.
- See if you can put yourself in their shoes, to understand their position, rather than punish them for doing something you deem wrong. Be a teacher and a guide, even a confident leader, but not a dictator or a punisher.
- Provide empathy and a safe space for them to express how they feel if/when they will share with you.
Do not tolerate aggressive behavior. Tell the child to keep their hands to themselves and remind them that hitting is not allowed. If your child continues to be aggressive, keep everyone safe by maintaining distance.
Create a barrier if needed. For example, stand on the other side of a table, or hold up a pillow to block kicks or hits. If you are able, move your child to a safe space (as gently as possible) to cool down.
Only allow them to rejoin others when they regain control.
If you have concerns about the safety of you, your child, or anyone else, call 911 or the crisis number in your area.
All behaviors, whether deemed positive or negative, serve a purpose.
The purpose (or reason) for any behavior is to communicate a need, desire, or feeling. The reason for the behavior is also known as the function of the behavior.
Professionals often conduct a functional behavior assessment (FBA) to understand why a child exhibits challenging behaviors. The FBA allows psychologists, behavior specialists, etc., to make research-based recommendations to meet the child’s needs.
An FBA determines the function of the behavior, which guides the recommendations made for the child.
The FBA recommendations aim to reduce challenging behaviors.
Parents and teachers are encouraged to provide a supportive environment while teaching the child new skills (replacement skills) to meet their needs.
Let’s look at the benefit of teaching replacement skills vs. using punishment to improve behavior.
Example: A child who frequently has a runny nose might keep using their sleeve to wipe it. The behavior will likely continue if the child does not know how to use a tissue or cannot access tissues. Giving the child access to tissues and teaching them to use tissues may alleviate the problem
However, if you punished (or yelled at) the child rather than providing them with the appropriate tools, you would likely be unsuccessful at stopping the behavior because you wouldn’t have addressed the need (taking care of a runny nose).
If the child only stops the behavior (wiping their nose with their sleeve) due to fear of punishment, they will naturally be uncomfortable until they get the tools (e.g., tissues) to meet their needs. This discomfort could lead to a different set of problematic behaviors.
For instance, the child may try to hide their face while wiping their nose. They might sniffle over and over to keep it from dripping or become agitated and cry or complain. They might wipe their nose with their hand, tilt their head back, etc. Punishment wouldn’t change the student’s need, which in this case, is to keep his face clean.
Many new challenges can arise when we punish a child without giving them the tools to succeed next time.
Children who get punished sometimes change their behavior in the short term out of fear. However, the behaviors often return, manifest differently, or occur again once parents or teachers are not around.
Adults often say that children who don’t get punished for their challenging behaviors act out more.
That is because many adults feel that punishment (e.g., yelling, grounding, spanking) is the only effective method for discipline.
They often don’t know the science-backed strategies for children that lead to more cooperation and improved self-esteem.
A research-based method often utilized in schools is positive behavior support (PBS).
PBS indicates the benefits of teaching replacement skills to children struggling with behavioral challenges. According to the philosophies of PBS:
- Replacement skills should be taught and practiced in a supportive, empathetic, and encouraging environment that considers the child’s strengths and interests.
- Positive feedback is utilized to reinforce the child’s use of the replacement behaviors (e.g., “I really like how you raised your hand in math today!” or “You have been really responsible with asking for help when you don’t understand something, I’m going to write you a positive note about how proud I am of your effort and initiative”).
To illustrate, in the example above with the student who needed a tissue, the following positive behaviors supports would occur as an alternative to punishment:
- The student would be given tissues and taught how to use them (with guidance and support if needed)
- The teacher or parents would give reminders when needed, along with positive reinforcement (e.g., nice work using the tissues during math today).
- If the child used their sleeve again, they would have to wash their hands, change their shirt, etc. so they would be held accountable for staying clean and reducing the chance of spreading germs.
- This plan would be carried out consistently until using tissues became the habit rather than the exception.
- This would be much more effective for teaching proper tissue use than telling a student that they have to sit in time out for five minutes for wiping their nose with their sleeve.
- If the child became frustrated by the need to use the tissue the parent or teacher would provide an empathetic and understanding response while consistently expecting that the boundary (use the tissue, not your sleeve) is followed.
Can you determine the function of your child’s behavior to teach them appropriate replacement skills?
As a parent, teacher, caregiver, etc., you can do your own informal functional behavior assessment.
First, try to figure out the reason for the behavior; next, put strategies in place to support your child and give them the tools they need to be successful.
To do a functional behavior assessment, you should analyze the child’s behavior in different environments or settings. Questions you need to ask include:
- What is the specific behavior(s) of concern the child is displaying?
- “When do these behaviors happen?” (e.g., when given particular demands, when they cannot have their way, when they are in certain locations, during certain times of day, etc.)
- “How do the adults respond to the challenging behavior(s)?”
- “What is the child getting out of the behavior(s)?”
Once you have a hypothesis for a reason for the behavior, you can design a plan to teach your child positive ways to meet their needs. You teach and reinforce replacement skills.
Additional Information About the Top Five Reasons for Behavior Problems in Kids:
While this article gives some very effective strategies for alleviating behavior problems, I am sure you can find functions of behavior, problematic situations, or behavior strategies that are not covered in this article.
Whatever the situation, try to determine the function of the behavior and provide strategies to support your child’s needs.
Every child is different so try to tailor your behavioral supports to your child’s unique strengths, interests, and personality.
Sometimes several behavioral challenges occur at the same time for a variety of reasons.
For example, you may have a child who does not follow requests, makes fun of other people, has a lot of energy, and has trouble expressing their feelings.
To address these behaviors all at once, you would use a combination of the strategies explained above. You may decide to only focus on improving one area at a time, though.
What one person deems bad/wrong another might not.
Try to think about whether you could just let something go or provide support, rather than reacting negatively/judging the child, etc.
Think of why you have done things that other people got mad at you for. Do you think you should be punished for them?
It is important that we teach children to develop positive ways to express or process their frustration or anger (e.g., saying how they feel, walking away, exercising, doing something they enjoy, etc).
We can set an example through our own behavior and walk them through the steps when they need us to.
Education and Behavior – Keeping Adults on the Same Page for Kids
Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”