Why Does My Child Act Out

Why Does My Child Act Out

Sometimes my child’s behavior drives me wild. What is going on?

When children act out, they are usually trying to tell us something. That is, behavior is a form of communication. Sometimes it is intense communication, such as hitting, biting, throwing, screaming, or swearing.

If you think about your own life, this begins to make sense. If a mouse runs across the floor, do you calmly say, ‘oh, I see there is a mouse running across the floor,’ or do you scream and jump on a chair?  Have you ever wanted to push or yell at someone who is standing too close or brushes past without watching where they are going?

Children don’t have our years of experience to draw on. Their command of speech is not as firmly in place. In terms of development, gross motor and fine motor skills develop before speech. So it makes sense that when children are stressed, they revert to stronger skills, that is, behaviors such as pushing.  

When children hit, bite, throw, or scream, we sometimes think the child is ‘just being bad.’ Sometimes even when we are aware the child is trying to tell us something with their behavior, we guess wrong.  We may think the message in the tantrum is, ‘I don’t want to do’ whatever the adult is asking.

Often there is more to the message. For example, we say, ‘come on, it’s time to go to grandma’s.’ The child hears, ‘you cannot finish what you are doing.’ We say, ‘time to brush teeth.’ The child worries that the toothpaste tastes too strong, or the brush is too hard, or water feels weird and makes a lot of noise. That is, many factors can be contributing to behaviors. Factors such as being tired or hungry, having sensory sensitivities, or not understanding the whole message.

We can help our child let us know what these factors are. Take a moment to see the situation from your child’s point of view. Help the child explain what they are upset about. You may have to make some guesses. Children will often let us know when we have guessed right or wrong. Then we can help find a solution. For example, maybe the child can finish what they are doing before we leave for grandma’s, or when we get back, or in the car. This process can also be part of teaching children how to identify their feelings and express them in acceptable ways.  For example, if we guess the child is angry about what is going on, and the child says yes or nods, then we can coach the child to say ‘I’m mad’ rather than stomp or yell.

As a parent or caregiver, it is important to have a positive attitude about challenging behaviors. Few children set out to ‘be bad.’ Most are doing their best to meet their own needs as they see them. We can help them communicate their needs without acting out. Once we and our children share a common understanding of the problem, we can work together on mutually acceptable solutions.


Blog Disclaimer:  Please be aware that this blog contains general information. It is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended as treatment or a recommendation or prescription for a particular child. If you have questions about your child, please talk to your pediatrician or seek other professional services.