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  • Writer's pictureLea Ray, LCSW

What causes child behavior problems?

Child misbehavior has many causes. It is completely normal for all children to misbehave some of the time. Just as we adults sometimes snap at our loved ones or act in petty ways, children sometimes talk back, make messes, or act impulsively. But when children’s behavior problems get in the way of their friendships, or make it hard for you to get through the day, you may want to try some new strategies for dealing with them, or even seek professional help.

The first thing to check is whether your child’s behavior is normal for his age. For example, it is completely normal for one- and two-year-olds to throw loud tantrums and refuse to share with others, though older two-year-olds can start to decrease this behavior. It is normal for 6-year-olds to hate losing a game and possibly cheat. Most kids of all ages have a very hard time sitting still and politely listening to adult conversation. Here is a good “ages and stages” guide to help you get a sense of what is normal at each age. Even though a behavior is normal, you still need to address it. For example, you can start by gently teaching a two-year-old that you won’t buy her that toy she wanted because she had a tantrum. You can help your six-year-old handle losing a little better. But you can relax knowing that this behavior is normal. Correcting it will be a gradual process and will probably require patience!

Children are more likely to misbehave when they are tired or hungry. It’s a good idea to avoid a long, boring trip to the store right before nap or mealtime, if feasible. They are also more likely to misbehave if they’re bored. If your child frequently misbehaves, one thing to consider first is whether they are getting enough sleep and eating well. Also, do they have interesting things to do or are they spending all of their time in front of the TV?

Children also misbehave more when they are not able to communicate clearly. Some of young children’s tantrums are due to the fact that they are not able to explain what they want and get help from adults. Children who have a language delay may be even more frustrated, because they know and understand so much more than they are able to express.

Often, parents accidentally reinforce kids’ misbehavior. Kids thrive on parental attention, but when kids are playing calmly on their own, we often breathe a sigh of relief and rush to do the laundry, or send that text we’ve been meaning to get to. Then when they get into mischief, we run in to deal with it and suddenly they get lots of attention, even if we’re angry and yelling. Or kids may learn that when they whine and fuss we give them what they want, even if we initially said no. On the flip side, if we expect too much of our children and they are unable to live up to our expectations, they may stop trying and act out because they’re frustrated and angry. (That’s why it’s a good idea to check out the ages and stages guide above, to make sure that your expectations of your child are in line with their developmental level).

Sometimes children misbehave because they have ADHD or some other biological problem with impulse control, and their brain really doesn’t let them think before they act. Sometimes children misbehave because they are deeply sad or angry, either because they suffer from depression or anxiety, or because something traumatic has happened to them. If children have experienced a trauma – living through a natural disaster, a car accident, a serious illness, or abuse – they may not trust that the world is a safe place. Some traumatized children become very quiet and withdrawn, but other children act out their anger through aggression and defiance. These children will need a lot of parental support and are likely to need therapy as well.

Stay tuned next week for how to handle child behavior problems!

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