Are you perplexed about the child behavior problems in your home? Are you wondering what to do?

You may be encountering any number of child behavior problems with your son or daughter. He or she may be displaying defiant behaviors, such as ignoring your directives or replying in an insolent tone. Your child might be aggressive to you or others – hitting and pushing, or he or she may be lying or stealing. Perhaps your child is having emotional melt-downs about minor issues.

If you’re at a loss for what to do about your child’s negative behaviors, you’re not alone. Virtually every parent has felt bewildered, embarrassed, frustrated and helpless in the face of their child’s behaviors.

The first question we need to ask about these child behavior problems is, “Why is my child doing this?” The second question is, “What do I do about it?”

Why is my child engaging in unwanted behaviors?

When your child is behaving inappropriately, the first question we should ask is “why?” Some parents don’t really consider the reasons behind the behaviors – they just react to the behaviors. Other parents assume they know what is going on with their child. However, it’s easy to make the wrong assumptions. This is where a professional therapist can help you analyze the motivation behind the behavior.

We need to understand that underlying emotions are at the core of a child’s behavior and what those feelings are. Once we understand the feelings the child is having, we then ask, “What is causing these feelings?” And then we go a bit deeper and ask, “What need does my child have that is not being met?”

Let’s take a look at some common child behavior problems that spur many parents into therapy, and then look at the likely feelings that may be driving the behaviors. Note that a behavior may have more than one trigger depending on the child’s age and circumstances.

Child Behavior Problems and Emotions that May Be Causing Them

Behavior Potential Core Emotions Questions to explore
defiance Anger


Who or what is making the child angry?

Is the child uncertain about who the authority figures are in his life, or if they actually have authority?

hitting, kicking Anger Is someone being physically aggressive with the child?
self harm Pain Is the child in physical pain? What is causing emotional pain or depression?
sexualized behavior Confusion Is the child viewing inappropriate media or adult behavior? Is the child being molested?
temper tantrum Frustration Does the child know more acceptable ways to negotiate needs?


When we consider the feelings that may be driving certain behaviors it helps us to understand what tools we can employ to end the unwanted behavior. The key is to interpret the behaviors correctly. Three different children may be engaging in the same behavior but each of the three may have separate motivations for their behavior. Interpreting behaviors involves analyzing the specific child and his history and his current situation.

Functional Behavioral Assessment

A tool that has successfully helped many children overcome negative behaviors is a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA).

A professional therapist using this technique would first interview the parents and the child, and spend time observing the child, taking note of where the behavior is happening and what is going on when the child engages in the problem behavior. The therapist would also ask about any recent changes in the child’s home or school life.

Once this data is collected, the therapist analyzes the “function” behind the behaviors (why the child is acting that way). Interpreting the reasons for a behavior is a difficult task, as the motivation for the behavior can be complex. However, the therapist uses training and experience to best analyze the “why” behind the behavior and then devises a behavior intervention plan to decrease the behaviors until they are no longer an issue.

A counselor who specializes in behavior therapy can be helpful in guiding parents to carefully observe their child’s behavior, assess the reasons for the behavior, and develop a plan to reduce unwanted behaviors.

One thing to remember with child behavior is the effect of change that is occurring in the child’s life, whether good or traumatic. Traumatic change could involve losing a parent or primary caregiver (through divorce, death, abandonment), or new stresses in the home, such as financial issues or substance abuse that lead to frequent arguments between parents and/or neglect of the child.

Even good changes – such as moving to a new home, starting a new school, or a new baby born into the family – can trigger negative behaviors if the child feels fearful or insecure or overlooked.

Children who are most likely to be compliant and generally well-behaved are the children who are reared in an atmosphere of security, warmth, stability, and attention to their needs. They have parents/caregivers who are lovingly authoritative – expecting and rewarding positive behaviors.

These parents/caregivers take care to understand what’s happening when negative behaviors emerge, and support the child through the underlying issue, and firmly guide them to more appropriate behaviors.

Issues to consider when analyzing behavior

Family situation

Who is in the child’s home, and who are the child’s primary caregivers? Are both parents married to each other (or in a long-term committed relationship) and living with the child in the home? Is it a single parent home? Is there a step-parent or does the parent have a partner who isn’t the child’s parent?

Is there a succession of partners who are frequently in the home or living there? Is the child being raised by grandparents or other family members? Who else, besides the child’s parent(s) or primary caregivers, are in the home? Are there other siblings or other non-family children or adults living in the home?

You might guess where these questions are leading. A primary issue is whether or not the child has stability in his or her home life. If the parent/caregivers and even the other residents of the home are transitioning, this can lead to insecurity, fear, and apprehension in the child, which can manifest in any number of negative behaviors.

If one or both parents are not in the home (due to divorce, death, etc.) this can engender feelings of abandonment in the child. What’s more, single-parent homes usually have more financial stress and the one parent can feel overwhelmed taking on the full task of parenting and caring for a home without another parent there to help out. Any type of stress in the home can lead to behavior problems in the child.

Another consideration in homes where there is a lot of transitioning – new partners, new family members (step-parents, step-siblings, etc.) – you need to think about who is directly involved with your child, and what influence they are exerting on the child’s behavior, and even whether there’s a chance that some sort of abuse might be going on


Does the child get ample opportunity to play, both inside and outside? Does the child have siblings or other children to play with? Do the adults in the child’s life go outside to play ball with the child or get down on the floor to play with dolls or legos? Does the child have appropriate toys and an outside area that’s safe for running around?

Play is a critical element in language development of young children, and in learning appropriate social skills. It’s important for developing creativity, for giving an outlet from frustration or pent-up energy, and for developing life-long exercise habits that are crucial for good health.

Play is essential for learning how to relax, to have fun, and to enjoy the company of others. Through play, children learn self-esteem, how to safely explore, how to cooperate with others, and how to develop tolerance and patience.

When a parent or caregiver takes time to engage in play with their child, they are sending a message that the child is important to them, that they care about the child and enjoy their company.


As an adult, think about the things you control. You decide when to get up and when to go to bed, you decide what clothes you will wear, and what you will eat for breakfast. You decide what to do with your leisure time, and who and where you will spend it.

On the other hand, most children are told when to get up and what their bed time is, and their parents usually buy their clothes for them and decide what they will eat. Parents also control what the child does in their free time. Sometimes, a child’s unwanted behaviors are simply their attempt to gain control over at least one element of their life. This is especially true when the child is going through key developmental transitions – such as from baby to toddler (the “terrible twos”) and later on when they enter adolescence.

What do the parents/caregivers understand about parenting?

Most of us tend to parent in the same way that we were parented, or go to the other extreme and try to do everything the opposite of how our parents did it. However, to successfully rear children with a minimum of problem behaviors, it’s helpful to have a basic knowledge of child development and behavior management.

It is well worth your time to read and familiarize yourself in how to understand your child, how to redirect your child to appropriate behaviors, and how to practice one-on-one time with your child.

You can educate yourself in knowing when (and how) to “actively ignore” behaviors, when to praise, how to use your tone of voice appropriately, and when (and how) to implement appropriate consequences for unwanted behaviors. Your local library has copious books on the topic of child rearing and behavior management, not to mention on-line resources.

What about the parents you know who are successfully raising children who are secure and well-behaved? Observe what these parents are doing and ask questions!


Is there appropriate housing in a safe area and healthy food and suitable clothing? How many children are in the home who need care? Does the child have a bedroom, and how many other people are sharing that room?

These questions mostly relate to issues of safety, security, and health, all of which impact behavior. Other factors are whether the child is getting enough attention and if he or she has a “space” of their own – even if it’s one section of a shared bedroom.

Where is Dad?

All children, and especially boys, need their father in their life – they need that role-model and that authority figure and the support that a good father gives to their mother. Studies have shown that children who bond emotionally with their fathers, and whose fathers are active in their life are twice as likely to get a college education and a stable job. Children with a supportive father are less likely to experience teen pregnancy, to be arrested, or to suffer depression.

Numerous factors impact child behavior. The parents’ job is to ensure that the child’s life is structured so that the child is safe, secure, loved and cared for. Parents and caregivers need to be sensitive to the needs of the child and give time to appropriately meeting those needs.

When inappropriate behaviors emerge, careful thought needs to be given to the “why” behind the behaviors, and how to deal with both the “why” and the behavior itself.

You are not alone in the journey of parenting. If you feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, take advantage of the guidance of a professional counselor in addressing the child behavior problems in your home.

“Look at me,” courtesy of Hermes Rivera,, CC0 License; “Growing Up,” courtesy of Suleman Mukhtar,, CC0 License; “Curbside chat,” courtesy of Sebastian Leon Prado,, CC0 License; “Love You More,” courtesy of,, CC0 License


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