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Understand the Root Cause of Acting Out

screaming tantrum toddler boy yelling anger

Sometimes children act out in maddening ways -  tantrums, explosive fighting with siblings, or an outright refusal to comply with requests. When these kinds of behaviors happen too frequently in homes, they tend to be met with strictness, tight control, or even force. It makes sense that parents would want to "lay down the law" on these types of behaviors! It is not pleasant to be around children when they are in this mode and many parents have been taught to eliminate these kinds of behaviors through punishment.

Yet, punishment-based parenting advice is outdated. In fact, research suggests that punishment can make problem behavior even worse! What we know today is that children tend to act out when the level of stress they are experiencing in life exceeds their ability to cope. And unless mom and dad learn to look past behavior and consider the root causes of why their child is acting out, they are likely to overlook the possibility that their child is experiencing internal struggle and strife. Most children do not have the brain capacity or sophistication to articulate what is happening in their inner world in relation to situations and experiences. Therefore, when having a hard day, or when going through challenging life events such as changing schools, moving, or divorce, many kids will act out their feelings which can show up as angry outbursts or defiance.

​For example, lets look into the world of Matt, age 8. Matt's parents are successful, well-educated, and hardworking adults that are loving and attentive. Matt lives in a family-friendly community and attends a top-notch public school. Yet, his parents fight a lot after he goes to sleep. Last night he heard his parents fighting just after he got into bed. This worries him but he has never talked to anyone about it. Hearing the fight led him to stay awake an hour or so longer than usual. Then during recess he was excluded from a game with his friends, for the third day in a row. After recess Matt was very frustrated during Math because he did not understand the material being taught but was too embarrassed to ask for help.

On the way home from school, Matt was positive and upbeat and did not mention a word to his mother about any of his troubles - even when she asked him detailed questions about his day. On some level Matt knows he is troubled but he does not know how to articulate this. When the mother-son pair arrived at home, Matt eats a wholesome snack and gets started on his homework which is part of his daily routine. Suddenly, Matt becomes whiny. Whines quickly lead to screaming, a rude outburst, and refusal to do his homework.

Mom is feeling angry and baffled. What just happened? Her son has just become an angry and defiant little monster! Mom could raise her voice, lay down the law, and demand that Matt begin his homework RIGHT NOW. She could sternly remind Matt that he will not be allowed to play outside or enjoy screen time until all of homework is finished.

Perhaps mom starts here, but hopefully she does not stay here. There is another approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. Mom could look at Matt's outburst as a signal that something is going on inside of him that he is having difficulty with understanding, feeling, and expressing. Matt's mom would see that he is having a hard time coping - with something in his life - and she would seek to discover the root cause of his behavior. Mom will still set and hold limits, and maintain high expectations, but she will also allow space for Matt to feel and move through his feelings and make sense of what is going on. Until children learn how to feel feelings without acting them out, it can be messy. Part of the job of the parent is to help children move through this process.

Punishing poor behavior assumes that children act out on purpose and are deliberately choosing to be difficult. Although this may happen from time to time, my strong assumption is that most of the time children do not choose to act poorly. Rather, poor behavior is a sign, a symptom, a signal, that the child is experiencing difficulty with some aspect of his life which could include, but is not limited to, friendships, performance in school and sports, or the relationship with the parent. Looking at our children through this lens enables parents to get to the root cause of acting out behavior which is more likely to create long lasting positive changes in the way your child behaves and acts while also increasing closeness and connection within the parent-child relationship.

With this realization, Matt's mom will really slow down, move in for physical affection (assuming Matt responds well to touch), tap into genuine compassion and empathy, and become curious. With this approach she is likely to get more tears and an earful about the situations and events that are troubling Matt. And once Matt has gotten his troubles of his chest, feels heard, and re-connects to his mother, it is likely he will regain composure and be ready to tackle homework.

This approach takes patience, time, and a willingness on the part of the parent to be open to exploring the child's inner world. It teaches children valuable skills such as emotional regulation and responsiveness, gives them the ability to go to adults for help and guidance, models conflict resolution and assertiveness, and creates connection and closeness. ​

Cristina Trette's picture
Coaching for Parents and Couples

Cristina Trette is a Life Coach specializing in parent and family work. Utilizing a strength-based and forward movement approach, Cristina facilitates the experience of enhanced joy, harmony, and well-being within family life and relationships. Cristina writes about parenting, love, and self-growth at