Why Does My Child Act Like That?

February 28, 2017

sad-girl-smAll parents wonder at times whether their child's behavior is normal. Children at every age exhibit embarrassing or frustrating behaviors: whining, tantrums, bathroom talk, swearing, or bossiness. These behaviors test your patience and can leave you at your wit's end. As much as you love your child, his actions can make you feel uncomfortable and vulnerable to other people's criticism.

Parents ask: "Why is he doing this?", "Will she outgrow this?", "What should I do?" For each challenging behavior, parents struggle with what is normal, what is acceptable, and how to deal with it. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between unacceptable behavior and normal development.


Is This Behavior Normal?

It's tough to know what behavior is "normal" without considering the context or intensity as well as the behavior itself. Behaviors may become "abnormal" if they last too long, if they occur at the wrong time or place, or if they are exceed acceptable limits. Behaviors that interfere with daily routines may also be abnormal. Clearly, it is important to catch and change these behaviors early.

Parents often turn to one another when their child's behavior overwhelms them. It is important to reach for support and voice your concerns. This helps you focus on the behavior rather than your own embarrassment.

The ages listed here are approximate guidelines. The behaviors listed occur most frequently but are not limited to these ages. Behaviors may reappear at any time, particularly in times of stress.

Normal Development Time to Consult with Others
Temper tantrums tantrums continue past (age 18 months - 4 years) preschool; increase in frequency or the behavior is unsafe
Swearing or "Bathroom talk" (age 3- adolescence) does not respond to limits
Excluding others or being excluded (ages 4-12) behavior is unsafe; exclusion based on prejudices
Bossiness or bully (ages 4-8) shows no empathy; hurts others without cause; behavior is unsafe
Inability to share (ages 1-4) is not limited to special items; shows no improvement in preschool
Hyperactivity (age 2- adult) prevents child from participating in activities (sleep, reading, group activities)
Dishonesty or stealing (ages 4-10) persists for more than a few months; uses behavior to get attention
Picky eater (age 2 - adolescence) chooses only non-nutritious foods; pediatrician concerned; possible eating disorder


Understanding Those Embarrassing Behaviors

Sometimes it seems that children resist every limit you set. The resistance and your response to it helps them learn limits and rules for getting along with others.

"Look at that man in the wheelchair!" Jimmy called to his mother in the store.

Brian and Chris giggled as they made bathroom noises with their mouths and hands while waiting for the movie to begin.

"I want it, I wa-ant it!" screamed Jennifer in the toy aisle.

Children may behave inappropriately to get something they want or to avoid something they don't want to do. Sometimes they act inappropriately because their friends do. Still others are just trying to satisfy their curiosity. However, the most common reason for misbehavior is simply to get attention.

Most children love an audience. When you're in public places such as stores or restaurants, they sense that you may give in to their wishes to keep the peace. Some children think that if they make a scene, they will get what they want. Your embarrassment might allow them to get away with unacceptable behavior.


Why Children Misbehave

  • To get your attention.
  • To satisfy his curiosity.
  • To get something he wants.
  • To avoid doing something: chores, clean-up or homework.
  • Because his friends do it.


Comparing Behaviors

Some parents find certain behaviors tolerable or even lovable at home but find them uncomfortable in the public's eye. Other parents struggle with the sense that their child just doesn't "fit the mold." Still others need to discipline behaviors that are unacceptable or unsafe. All parents wonder how family, friends, and professionals judge their actions and those of their child.

Take comfort in the fact that all children misbehave sometimes. Children act in different ways and parents struggle with how to respond. Although you can't predict when a negative behavior will arise, how you react affects how long the behavior continues.

Children simply outgrow some behaviors. Most children will fight or cheat, act shy or talk back at some point. Most outgrow it without special effort on your part.


Responding To Your Child

Although each child and situation is different, there are basic guidelines for dealing with troubling behaviors. First, keep your child and others safe. Stay close to help your child gain control of his behavior or to establish limits.

It may be effective to ignore certain behaviors such as whining or bathroom talk when they first occur. Later, talk it over with your child. "Those words can hurt people's feelings and our family doesn't use them."

Other behaviors may be better handled by redirection. "I know you're angry but I can't let you bang on the TV. You can hit this big pillow all you want." Redirection helps provide a solution for each of you.

Similarly, certain situations are best diffused before they get out of hand. When you see your ten- year-old about to explode because he's been left out and teased, step in to relieve the pressure. Offer an alternate activity to all the children. "Why don't we all play Capture The Flag now?"

Help your child face the consequences of his actions. This may be uncomfortable for your child but it is important to give him clear guidance and the opportunity to set things right. "Kevin, we need to take this candy back to the store and explain to the clerk you didn't pay for it." Make it clear to your child that stealing the candy was unacceptable and he must face the consequences.


Strategies For Coping

  • There isn't just one 'right way' or magic formula for success.
  • Remain patient and hang in there when the going gets tough.
  • Keep your sense of humor.
  • Don't worry that onlookers think you are a bad parent. Any parent has "been there" at least once.
  • Support your child, but be firm about your expectations for his behavior. If the situation gets out of hand, remove your child, stay calm and then discuss what happened.
  • Talk with teachers, counselors, doctors and other parents for support, tips and suggestions.
  • Give your child a warning and alternatives to negative behavior.


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Topics: Parenting

National Child Care Information and Referral Center Team

Written by National Child Care Information and Referral Center Team

A program of Child Care Aware® of America, the National Child Care Information & Referral Center has served as our nation’s most respected hub of child care information for parents and child care providers. The team has helped families and providers connect with their local Child Care Resource and Referral office (CCR&R) and locate other child care resources in their communities across the United States since 1992.