Sometimes families suddenly encounter serious child behavior problems, and the parents are confused. Why is this happening? What should they do about it? It’s upsetting to feel both helpless and responsible at the same time.

Behavior problems in children can range from disrespect and talking back, to violent outbursts involving hitting, kicking, etc., or to deceit and lying. As a parent or caregiver, how should you respond in these situations? Counselors who work with families in outpatient settings meet a lot of exhausted, angry, confused parents who are at their wit’s end with their children’s behavior.

Being a good parent might require you to respond to all kinds of different scenarios—an inconsolable child, an aggressive child, a child who ignores or disobeys you, and more. How can you set limits, stay calm, and acknowledge your child’s feelings when you feel completely overwhelmed and not sure how to respond?

When it comes to the relationship between parents and their children’s behavior problems, one word is key: interpretation.

What matters isn’t just how your child is acting—it’s how you interpret the behavior. What you believe about your child’s motives, autonomy, and emotions makes a huge impact on how you respond to them. It’s easy as a parent to assume you understand your child well, but that’s not always the case.

Family therapy can help you move from assumptions to knowledge. You’ll learn the true underlying reasons for your child’s behavior, and you’ll receive help in determining whether your child’s behavior problems fall into the category of “normal” or not.

A skilled and experienced therapist who has been educated in behavior problems, and has spent many sessions working with kids with behavior problems, will be able to discern the root feelings underneath problematic behaviors. Here are some of the most common behaviors that lead parents to seek counseling, along with the feelings that often accompany each behavior.

Behavior Feelings Questions to consider
Lying, stealing, or hoarding (often food) Anxiety, shame, a desire to hide Who or what is the child afraid of? What are they ashamed of? Why do they want to hide?
Talking back, hitting, kicking Anger What are they angry about?
Sexualized behavior

 

Confusion

 

What sexual behavior have they seen or experienced firsthand?
Self-harm or making unsafe choices Sadness What loss, harm, fear have they been enduring?

 

One core question can address all of these areas: what are the child’s unmet needs? Need is a literal word here; it doesn’t refer to unmet expectations or desires, or a child who isn’t spoiled. It goes deeper than that, to the child’s innermost emotions.

What is the child struggling with internally? What do they need to share with someone but have been unable to verbally process? Did they witness or experience something that created confusion in their minds, and they’re trying to sort through that confusion by acting out?

Often when children are exhibiting these behaviors, parents become desperate. They wonder, “Why is my child acting this way? Can you make it stop?”

Answering these questions is important, but part of therapy might be reframing those questions to identify the parent’s underlying concern. What is the parent really asking? What are those questions really getting at?

Underneath the surface, these questions point to the parent’s concern that something is wrong with them. Are they a bad parent because they can’t make their child behave correctly? When a child has serious behavior problems and the parent can’t make those problems go away, their sense of effectiveness is called into question.

In the therapeutic setting, at this point, we need to normalize the child’s behaviors. There may be a tendency to catastrophize them, but this doesn’t help. We also need to reduce the child’s need to act out.

One of the techniques commonly used in therapy is called Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA). This technique is based on the theory that every behavior has a reason behind it, but not all behaviors are interpreted the same way.

For example, a child cannot sit still during a movie. The parent believes their child is being disrespectful and causing intentional disruptions to the family and other moviegoers.

Or a parent sitting in therapy with their child accuses the child of not caring or listening because they are playing with sensory toys rather than engaging in the conversation.

In these and other cases, a parent is likely to ask, “How can I get my child to respect me?” But before we get to that question, it’s important to consider how and why the parent is interpreting the child’s behavior as disrespectful.

An FBA chart provides a visual explanation of these examples:

Behavior (bx) Possible Function(s) of the bx: Analysis
The child is restless and distracting during a movie A. Intentionally being disruptive

B. Moving out of anxiety or because the child has ADHD

 

My child is disruptive

OR

My child is anxious

The child is playing quietly with sensory toys during therapy session about their parents’ frustration with their behaviors. Child not interacting with the therapist or parent. A. The child is playing with sensory toys because they are emotionally disconnected

B. The child is playing to gain a sense of calm or because they are too shy to interact

My child is disrespectful

OR

My child is ashamed

 

This chart shows the wide range of possibilities when it comes to interpreting any specific behavior. In these two examples, the children who were in therapy were not motivated by sheer anger and disrespect; instead, they had both experienced the loss of a caregiver in the last year.

One child’s caregiver had died, and the other had abandoned them. They both lived in homes where they weren’t securely attached to a warm and available caregiver. Their current caregivers had experienced past trauma and were trying to survive on a daily basis.

In the field of family counseling, we know that when a child receives correction well and complies with their caregiver’s directions positively, they have formed a secure attachment. This means that their parent or caregiver has provided a level of empathy, attunement, warmth, and care that makes the child trust them. When a child has this inner assurance, they are able to develop into a competent and self-contained adult.

So when a child is struggling, acting out, and refusing to comply, we must return to the questions of why they’re acting this way and what we can do about it.

Before diagnosing a child with a mental health issue, or prescribing a medication to control their outward behavior, the following aspects should be examined in therapy:

1. Family of origin. Many clients who seek family mental health counseling come from broken or disrupted homes. Often one parent is absent, whether due to death, imprisonment, addiction, or abandonment. Many children simply do not have one or both parents who are consistently present and emotionally available.

2. How often do they get to play, and with whom, and why? Do their parents get down on the floor with them and build things they want to build? Do their caregivers lead by example what it means to relax, to create, to socialize? Do they get to be a kid?

2. Environment for play. Is the child free to enjoy being a kid? Does the caregiver set the example of healthy recreation and socializing? Does the caregiver ever play with the child?

In one case study, a child experienced horrible trauma at the hands of their biological parent. The child was removed from the home and placed with another caregiver whose health was in a precarious state. The child was left to care for their disabled sibling and also be responsible for the caregiver.

This child’s setting was unhealthy. There was far too much responsibility being placed on a child who was not mature enough for it. There was no time for play.

Children must have time for play; it’s crucial to their cognitive development. Play is the language they speak and the way they process the world around them. Many books have been devoted to the topic of play alone. Perhaps this is because as adults, we tend to easily forget what a vital role play had in our own childhoods.

For a child, having time and space to play is a necessity. It’s a way for them to explore the world, collaborate with others, exercise creativity, manage difficult emotions, develop patience and empathy, and more.

When a child is distressed, play can help unlock their inner world. When a child has behavior problems, we often find it has been a long time since their heart was emotionally touched. And what better way to touch a child’s heart than to play with them?

3. What can the child control? This is an important consideration when determining whether a child’s behavior problems are normal or not. Compare childhood to adulthood for a moment. Adults have a sense of autonomy. We can decide what to do with our available time each day, how we will spend our money, what we will eat, and so on.

What can a child decide for themselves? We know children are not mature enough to make all these independent decisions yet, but it’s healthy for children to gradually gain more autonomy in age-appropriate ways as they grow older. If they’re never given freedom to make their own decisions, maybe they’re acting out in ways that allow them to have a sense of autonomy in some measure.

It’s also important to consider the physical sensations and emotions a child may be experiencing before interpreting the motives behind their behavior. We use the acronym HALT for both children and adults. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

As adults, we often make excuses for our own bad behavior if one of these conditions applies to us. Each of us has certainly experienced acting in ways that are out of character because we were starving or exhausted, for example. Those feelings and sensations are big and distracting and should be addressed before we assume that a child is being intentionally unpleasant.

4. How equipped is the caregiver? It’s important to consider the caregiver’s parenting style and abilities before making a judgment on whether the child’s behaviors are normal or not.

Does the caregiver understand his or her own attachment style and parenting style? Do they understand how a child’s brain works when they’re having a tantrum? Are they able to respond to a child’s misbehavior in a way that is calm and non-shaming? Are they attuned to the child’s needs?

To better equip caregivers for the task of parenting, two resources are recommended:

1) The Whole Brain Child, by Dan Siegel

There is also a workbook and video available. These resources teach parents how to foster a connection with their child. Siegel also introduces the concept of redirection when a child is being disruptive.

2) Helping the Non-Compliant Child, by Robert McMahon

The University of Washington researched and developed a therapy to help parents be more consistent. The goals for therapy are for the parent to have one-on-one time with the child, increase the use of reflective language to help the child gain self-awareness, use strategic ignoring for certain behavior, praise good behavior, and give useful warnings and time-outs. McMahon’s book explains these concepts in detail.

5. What is the child’s daily environment like? Socioeconomic status affects stress, which in turn affects family life and how the children function at home. Children living with a single parent or caregiver, or a lot of siblings or other children, often act out in an attempt to gain the attention they’re lacking.

6. How does the child relate to other family members? In so many cases, a mother seeks therapy for a son who is showing signs of anxiety, depression, or is having trouble focusing at school. In almost all of these cases, the father is absent.

Both genders of children need their dad, and both need their mom. When either one is absent, it affects the child.

Sibling relationships can also be a cause of stress. Are older siblings bullying or teasing the younger ones? Does a younger sibling feel neglected by an older sibling? Does an older sibling feel left out of the attention that the younger one receives?

So we can see that whether a child’s behavior can be considered “normal” depends on a wide range of factors. There are biological, psychological, and social components to the question. There is no easy answer. Instead, there can be an ongoing conversation about the child’s environment and experiences.

It is about being willing to explore further causes for your child’s behaviors as well as being open to education on family systems dynamics. If you are interested in beginning the conversation, you are welcome to schedule a counseling appointment today.

If you are willing to explore the underlying causes of why your child is acting out and open to receiving education on how family dynamics play a role, we invite you to consider reaching out for family counseling and schedule your first appointment today.

Photos:
“Child with Arms Crossed”, Courtesy of Chinh Le Duc, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Uh-oh,” courtesy of Patrick Fore, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hide and Seek,” courtesy of Caleb Woods, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Jenga,” courtesy of Michal Parzuchowski, unsplash.com, CC0 License

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