There is a fundamental disconnect between parents and their little ones when it comes to the notion of misbehavior. Whether they’ve drawn on the walls or spat in grandpa’s face, ‘acting out’ is always a symptom among children—not the problem itself. “Acting out” literally comes from “acting out their feelings,” which means when children can’t express their needs and emotions in healthy ways, they will act them out through displeasing behavior. Here are some tips on how to better understand those feelings and get on track to understanding our kids when they’re acting out.
How to handle “acting out”
The key to understanding “acting out” is to see it as a communication driven by an unmet need.
Just as a puppy doesn’t purposely provoke us by chewing up the couch, our children’s behaviors come as much more natural expressions of their internal states.
It’s so easy to jump to judgments like “he’s just pushing my buttons” or “she’s doing it on purpose.” But we’d be wise to remember that when children can cooperate, they generally prefer to.
24 reasons why your child may be having big feelings
Here are some reasons that might really be at the root of the challenging behaviors—and some ideas of how to respond to them.
1. They’re hungry
Most of us can relate to the feeling of irritability that comes with low blood sugar. As with many adults, when a kid gets hungry, he may not even notice it, but automatically becomes crabby and starts grabbing toys from his little sister.
What to say: “Whoa! I can see we’ve run out of fuel. Grabbing toys isn’t respectful. Come, let’s return this doll to Celine and you and I will go grab some lunch. What do you fancy? Rice or pasta?”
2. They’re tired
Show me the parent who doesn’t totally get this one. When kids are sleep deprived or due for a nap, disintegration happens fast. So rather than sweetly saying: “Please Mummy, may I have a rest?” your daughter flings her bowl across the room.
What to say: “You’re showing me how exhausted you are! And I hear you! I’m putting the bowl in the sink and we’ll go straight to our room for a rest, my love.”
3. They need to pee
This one gets overlooked. But when (potty independent) children need to pee they often hold it in and become increasingly flustered. If little Jose suddenly bursts at you with an obnoxious tone saying, “You’re not the boss of me,” his stressed bladder may be to blame.
What to say:“Let’s take a bathroom break and then we’ll talk about this!”
4. They’re worried about something
If your child is harboring a concern about an upcoming transition—such as moving houses, a new baby on the way, a new school, a new job, a new babysitter or a sick grandparent—they likely will not have the words to express that in a healthy way. Rather, they’ll begin to refuse the meals you prepare, to hurt other children or breakdown into tantrums at Every. Little. Thing.
This is their way of trying to gain some control over their lives. When you have an inkling as to what the worry is, pick a calm and connected moment, such as bedtime or a long drive, and address it head-on. Be sure to be honest, but also optimistic and empowering. Don’t dismiss their worries, but help talk about what might happen and what they can do about it.
What to say: “Hey, my love. I can see you’re feeling really worried about something. Perhaps it’s about the new baby that’s on the way? Are you worried that I won’t have as much time for you once the baby arrives?”
5. They’re afraid of something
Most children experience normal childhood fears such as fear of the dark, monsters or robbers. While they may be normal, they can also be deeply inhibiting and can set them on edge throughout the day. Rather than remaining calm and regulated, your child might act out with anger. Helping him find coping mechanisms to gradually face these fears is key in helping children overcome their fear and not be controlled by it.
Validate their fears but still hold the expectation for them to overcome them, with support.
What to say: “I do not like being yelled at. I can see you’re feeling pretty angry right now. Has this got something to do with the questions you were asking me about robbers before? I know there are none, and I want you to feel sure, too. Would you like for us to go through the house with a flashlight so you can feel satisfied there are no robbers here?”
6. They’ve been influenced by something
If children are watching violent TV shows or have neighbors, friends or cousins who are wild, destructive or disrespectful—they may well try on this behavior. We all unwittingly, imitate what we see around us. When I’ve watched too much “Downton Abbey,” for example, my accent skews far posher than usual. So if your neighbor has been reciting a foul-mouthed rap song to your daughter this morning in the yard, you can expect some of that to come through.
What to say: “Hmmm, using those words is not how we speak in our home. I know you might hear other people using that language but being respectful is very important to our family.”
7. They’re mirroring you
I know this one bites. But when we’ve been losing our cool, yelling, punishing, threatening, it’s safe to assume our children will mirror that behavior right back at us. So when my son says: “How dare you?” it’s nothing short of hypocritical of me to shoot him down with, “You will not speak to your mother that way,” because clearly, he got it from me.
What to say: “I know I’ve been yelling and raising my voice. I’m sorry. It’s important that we all speak kindly and gently to each other, including me. Can we start over?”
8. They’re angry
Perhaps she’s angry you didn’t let her finish her game this morning, or that you forgot to dry her pink tutu in time for her playdate, or that you said no to a final helping of ice cream, or that you co-sleep with the baby and not with her, or that her teacher didn’t give her a warm smile that day, or that her favorite doll’s leg broke…
The point is, children have endless frustrations throughout their day—some of which are fleeting and others that are substantial. So when she purposely draws on your favorite cushion, she’s expressing just how angry she is. The key is to validate their anger and to empathize so as to allow them to move through the anger and reach the softer emotion beneath is sadness or fear.
Teach your child to express their anger through words, songs, painting…We love to sing the mad song (below) and eventually break into giggles. The healing comes when the angry feelings are expressed and allowed by you—even if the behavior is not.
What to say: “Yikes. I know you know that cushions are not for drawing on. And I can see from your face how mad you are right now! Being mad is just fine, but ruining our furniture is not. Would you like to stamp your feet and sing a mad song? Let’s do it! Repeat after me! “I’m MAD MAD MAD! I want to be BAD BAD BAD! I feel so SAD SAD SAD! That makes me MAD MAD MAD!”
9. They’re frustrated
When children hit developmental stages they haven’t quite mastered yet, they can feel deep frustration that they often need to act out. Consider the baby who’s trying to take their first steps and keeps falling. Or the toddler who desperately wants to feed herself but can’t manipulate her fingers just so yet. Or the preschooler who can’t write their name legibly despite their best efforts. Rather than politely saying, “I’m finding it difficult to master this skill which arouses deep frustration in me,” he swats his baby brother on the head.
What to say: “I can’t let you hit! I’m going to hold your hands until you can use them safely… I know you’re so frustrated, my love. It’s so hard to try something so many times and not manage yet, right?”
10. They’re sad
It’s almost taboo for children to be sad, because culturally we like kids to be happy and to make those around them happy. But if a child experiences a loss or that’s their temperamental disposition, they may feel deep sadness. They may be sad about things we expect them to be happy about such as a new sibling or graduating kindergarten. So she drags her feet just when you’re rushing to get out the door.
What to say: “Sweetheart, your face seems sad. I see that! Would you like to talk to me about it? We must leave the house right now, but we will have plenty of time for me to listen in the car. Let me help you with your shoes and let’s hold hands to the car, ok?”
11. They’re curious
Often what we perceive as acting out or not-so-good behavior is really just exploration. Children are infinitely curious and learn through hands-on, sensory experience. They need to touch, climb, throw, push, pull, spin things. So if your son just dumped all of the clean, folded laundry down the stairs, that may be his misguided curiosity at play.
What to say: “Oh no! That laundry is clean, so it’s not for throwing. I will put it on the bed next time. But I can see you want to throw things! Let me pass you this basket of teddy bears and you can throw away.”
12. They didn’t know it’s not allowed
Sometimes kids simply don’t realize something isn’t allowed. Even though it was painfully obvious to you (or perhaps because of this) you never made it clear to them. So if your daughter just sprayed shaving cream all over the bathroom, she may have thought this was your plan all along. Why else would you leave the shaving cream out?
What to say: “Whoops! Shaving cream is not for playing with! Silly me. I should have left it in the cupboard. Next time please do not use this as a game. Let’s clean up. I’ll grab the mop. Do you want to spray or wipe?”
13. They don’t understand the logic behind the limit
Setting limits is important and sometimes kids do need to simply “do as we say” without further explanation. But those instances are rare. For the most part, we’ll garner far more collaboration (rather than blind obedience) when children understand our reasoning behind the limits. Sometimes if we’ve too often failed to provide the logic, children may be moved to rebel. If they feel the rules don’t make sense, they may go ahead and grab the chocolate despite your repeated assertions that’s not allowed.
What to say: “Sam, I was very clear in asking you not to eat this chocolate and I’m disappointed that you have anyway. The reason I asked you not to was because this is for a gift for Marcy, it was not for us! I should have explained that, but I do expect you to honor my requests even when you don’t understand them. We’ll have to go and buy some more chocolate to replace this one. Let’s get your money jar and you can contribute to the purchase.”
14. They’re over-controlled
In a home that’s run like a tight ship with a lot of control and fear-based parenting, many children will act out. Under the pressures of high expectations and low support, children begin to feel like there’s “nothing to lose.” They resent feeling controlled and scramble to find ways to exert their autonomy and sovereignty. That’s one reason she why she may sneak around, lie or rebel. Lying is a normal developmental stage in children around the age of 5, but it can also be the sign of too much parental control—such as if she’s afraid you’ll come down on her like a ton of bricks, so she doesn’t want to share the truth.
What to say: “Honey, it seems you’ve lied to me. It’s really important that we have integrity and an honest, open relationship in our home. Were you afraid that I would be very angry or punish you if you were honest?”
15. They’re confused about limits
When we’ve been confused about a limit ourselves or unclear in setting them, children will push back and act out. They’ve received the message from us that this is a “free for all” or an “undefined territory” and is up for grabs. So if you sometimes let them use the iPad first thing in the morning and sometimes don’t, then you can expect them to try their luck.
What to say: “I’m sorry, I can see the confusion here is my fault as I’ve been unclear about the rules about the iPad in the morning. Let’s have a family meeting and discuss when and how we use it and who’s responsible for charging it. We can all contribute ideas and agree on what to do when someone breaks these rules. Then we’ll all sign it and hang up the rules for all to see.”
16. They’re agitated by something
Many children have sensitivities that can go undetected but manifest in grumpy behavior. Food intolerances such as a sensitivity to dairy or gluten can lead to fussy, testy children who appear to be acting out. A child who is sensorily sensitive to labels in their shirt, tight socks or too much noise can be more likely to tantrum, shut down, make demands or yell rudely.
What to say: “I can see you’re uncomfortable. Yelling like that hurst my ears. Can you help me figure out what’s bothering you? And then I can adjust it for you. Perhaps it’s too noisy in here? Let’s try going outside.”
17. There’s inconsistency
For most families a certain measure of predictability breeds security. And security helps children (us all) to regulate. If a child is picked up by a different adult each day, has dinner at a different time each day, has a bedtime at a different time each day—you get the picture—they’re likely to feel unsafe or unsure of what comes next.
When limits are inconsistent, too, then they’re really not sure where they stand. So when she becomes impossible at bedtime, demanding yet another drink, book or trip to the bathroom, this may actually be a plea for more predictability in her life.
What to say: “It’s really time to say goodnight now my love. We’re done with the books. Let’s talk about exactly what’s happening tomorrow, OK? In the morning you’ll wake up and then daddy will give you breakfast…”
18. They’re over-stressed
Just like all people, if children are under too much stress they will absolutely act out or self-damage, which is far worse. Unfortunately, today, children are under a lot of unnecessary stress to perform academically from the youngest of ages.
Children need long stretches of uninterrupted, independent play every single day, they need time in nature and time to rest. If they’re not getting these de-stressors, and their every day is scheduled with goal-driven, measurable activities that are then evaluated by adults such as grades, then they’re probably under a lot of stress. It’s no wonder he’s obnoxiously slamming doors.
What to say: “Can I come in? You just slammed that door pretty hard! I know you must be feeling very run down with all the homework you’ve got. Plus the game on Saturday. And piano practice. Still, please respect our home. You can always tell me when you’re stressed and I’ll get it. Hey, I have an idea, can we take this evening off? I’ll write you a note for your teacher. Let’s go play Monopoly.”
19. They don’t have the words
Especially in the early years, toddlers may simply not have the words we so desperately want for them to use. That’s why when parents yell for them to use their words, it usually falls on deaf ears. They can’t. Even if the appropriate words exist in their vocabulary, under the stress of the moment they can’t muster them.
As the adults, we can help to find the appropriate words for them and model for them how they might be used. So if you’re child lashes out when a friend grabs a doll, use it as a language learning opportunity.
What to say: “Uh oh! That hurt Kiley! I do not want you to hit. Are you trying to tell her you’re not done with the doll? Let’s check if she’s ok and then you can tell her, “I’m not done with the doll, Kiley… Hey, Kiley, are you ok?”
20. They’re overstimulated
Whether there’s too much noise, too many people, too many toys, too much novelty, light, excitement, attention, colors, sensations…an overload of stimulation can cause a really visceral reaction in anyone. So when you were so excited to take your 3-year-old to the fair, but they ended up tantruming through the entire thing because they wanted another ride on the Tea Cups, you can bet overstimulation is at the root.
What to say: “I can see we’re feeling a bit overwhelmed! And there is a lot going on here! Come, let’s go over here to this quiet corner and sit down together for a few minutes. You can put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes. We’ll calm our bodies down together.”
21. They’re trying to get connection
If we haven’t had much time for our little ones, they may be feeling cast aside or left behind. In a somewhat misplaced bid for connection, they may break something, yell or hurt someone. And it works for attention. But the fundamental thing to realize is that it’s not about attention, it’s about connection. They want our eye contact, our touch, our open hearts—not the stern look on our face telling them off. But if they can’t get the former, they’ll settle for the latter.
What to say: “Hey! I think you might have run out of hugs… Can I fill you up? Do you know how I can tell? Because you called me “stupid.” That doesn’t feel good to me and it shows me you must be completely out of hugs. Come over here!”
22. They’re questioning your leadership
If you’re a shaky, unconfident leader in your family, you might experience increased limit-testing and push back. So when you say it’s time to go, you might experience a lot of dawdling or even just outright ignoring.
What to say: “I can see I didn’t make myself clear the first time. I do not like being ignored. We’re going. Shoes on, now, please!”
23. They’re not sure what’s expected of them
Sometimes your child might behave inappropriately simply because they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Especially in a new situation, or with new people, they may shy away, or—conversely—become too loud and demand all of the spotlight. They may say things that appear rude or unseeingly, simply because no one’s ever told them that it’s impolite to point or that we don’t make comments about people’s bodies.
What to say: “While we’re visiting Uncle Tom, we’re expected to talk in soft voices. Can you use a soft voice with me?”
24. They want to be seen
Acting out, ultimately, can be a bid for being seen, valued and accepted as we are. It can be as though our child is saying, “Hey, Mum, will you love me when I do this?!”
What to say: “I can see you’re trying to do the worst thing you can think of! But I will love you no matter what you do, you can’t escape my love.”
When children act out it can be tempting to chalk it up to “bad behavior,” “demanding attention” or an “annoying mood.” But all behavior is a communication.
A request for help in meeting an unmet need. The need for unconditional love, for security and safety, for clarity and information. Usually when we answer the root cause, the symptom of the unpleasant behavior becomes irrelevant and fades away.
A version of this story was published October 16, 2021. It has been updated.