A therapist shares reasons your child may be acting out

No matter the age of your child you have probably had occasion to navigate challenging behaviors. Parents often struggle to find the balance between offering compassion and defining limits. Furthermore, in the exhaustion of daily life parents can take children’s misbehavior personally.  

“Why can’t Sally just do her homework?” 

“Why does Charlie always fight us about bedtime?”

“Why can’t he just pick up after himself?” 

“Why is she always in her room?” 

Why is this happening?

Sound familiar? Rest assured, in most cases, your child’s behavior is not an act of malice towards you but a method of communicating with you.  All behavior has meaning and very often the meaning has nothing to do with the behavior.  Acting out is a form of indirect communication. Children very often act out before they acquire the language and emotional awareness required to communicate what they need.  Even after that language is acquired, people of all ages act out when they haven’t had their needs met (adults included!). 

Think about one of your own difficult days.  You are met with needs and demands from your family. Given that you aren’t at your best, you may snap at them, seek isolation or even cry.  As adults, you know what your behavior means, you know what you need.  But even still, adults can find themselves “misbehaving” and being indirect about those needs.

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Being an investigator of your child

It seems that a piece of the job of parenting is being a part time investigator. From childhood tantrums to adolescent silence, parents can reflect and search to identify what the behavior means. What does their child need? 


  • Are they hungry or tired? 
  • Are they stressed or worried? 
  • Are they refusing to do homework because school is hard? 
  • Are they avoiding bedtime because they are having trouble sleeping? 
  • Are they throwing tantrums because they need attention?
  • Are they breaking the rules because they don’t believe the consequences will be enforced? 
  • Are they staying up all night on their phone because they are eager for rules and limits? 
  • Are they making demands because they believe they are in charge of the house? 
  • Does the behavior work for your child? Are they getting what they want? 
  • Are they calling out for help? 

Replacing our words

Parents should look at misbehavior as an opportunity to explore what is going on with their child.  We can replace “Why did you do that?” with “What do you need?” In identifying needs, parents can equip their children with language that will help them articulate how they are feeling and what they need (even if that’s just space from us!). In addition, understanding the meaning of behavior allows for addressing the root cause of the problem and not just the side effects.  For example, addressing sleeplessness as opposed to punishing avoidant behavior related to bedtime. 

What is the goal?

Remember…when deciding how to deal with behavior first consider what is the goal of the misbehavior? What is your child getting out of it? Having this information will allow you to make an informed decision about the best next step. 

If you are struggling with understanding your child’s behavior or knowing how to respond, we are here for you in Fuquay-Varina, Raleigh, or Wake Forest. Please reach out if you need help!