24 reasons children act out—and how to respond

24 reasons children act out—and how to respond

Here are some tips on how to better understand your child’s good behavior and less-than-great moments.

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 good behavior.

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. Here are some reasons that might really be at the root of the challenging behaviors—and some ideas of how to respond to them.

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 ora 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 to breakdown in 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’tt dismiss their worries, but help talk abouth what might happen and what they can do about it.

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!”

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?”

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It’s Not Me. It’s You

Winnie, a beautiful, musical, and timid African Grey who was apprehensive about people but loving once you gain her trust came to us last year from a local non-profit rescue, Parrot Education & Adoption Center, as a foster.  She picked up Mozart’s Queen of the Night after hearing it just twice and improved my coloratura game immensely with her clear resonance and astounding range. Winnie was tech savvy and racked up on my electricity bill by talking to our Alexa devices constantly.

Unfortunately, she was also an anxious creature who plucked constantly—to the point that she has NO tail, and my goal as a PEAC foster was to rehabilitate her for adoption, but I made it a personal goal to re-feather her.   With years of experience rehabilitating feral cats otherwise doomed for euthanasia and a go-to foster for pregnant cats at Helen Woodward Animal Center, I saw this as the next-level challenge in animal behavior science.

Whereas dogs and cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, any pet parrot today is only two generations from their wild, free-flying ancestors.  For survival, they’re designed to communicate with their flock loudly and clearly even through a dense rain forest.  They also chew, bite, scratch to prevent their beaks and nails from growing unsafely long.  Sadly, many of these natural instincts lead to pet parrots’ abandonment.

Birds are often recognized for their remarkable cognitive ability.  Einstein, the most researched parrot to date, demonstrated his species’ contextual understanding of language when he wasn’t taught the vocabulary “banana” but requested a “long, yellow fruit” from his caretaker, creatively using the vocabularies he was taught in completely different context and combination.   This level of intelligence demands to be utilized, so when parrots are locked up in a cage all day, unstimulated, with nothing to do, they WILL find something to do.  They will pluck their own feathers, pick their skin, and scream for attention.  In behavior therapy terms, those are just maladaptive behaviors, undesirable coping skills that need to be replaced with positive ones just like tantrums and bullying in children.

Change is hard, and change is slow.  In the first of our 12-Step Make It Happen series, I discussed the power of consistency. In the context of feather plucking in parrots, animal behaviorists recommend out-of-cage human interaction time, proper amount of sun and sleep and foraging activities so parrots must keep their minds and bodies active and work for their food.

Correct and Consistent Implementation Leads to Success

When I cared for a newborn litter of 5 kittens who were just learning to use the litter box, there was a lot of cleaning.  But it was nothing compared to the proper caregiving of parrots, and Winnie covered my house with thrown out food, droppings, feathers and skin flakes that she’s picked.

But I continued offering different enrichment and foraging activities to replace her feather plucking and was the proudest foster bird mom when a ruby red feather sprang up on her tail.    Winnie was successfully adopted during the early days of COVID quarantine through PEAC, and I was very proud to have been a part of the process.  Winnie has and will continue to bring her new family love and beautiful music.

Why isn’t it working?

Towards Christmas last year, another foster bird came to us.  It’s been three decades since I’ve had

 smaller birds, and I fell in love with Zorro the moment I saw him.  He looked like a stuffed doll with a white sweater and stepped up to cuddle with me the first time we met.  Zorro wanted to cuddle and be on people 24/7.  He also wanted to eat human table food (very unhealthy or even deadly for parrots), and was used to getting his way–Zorro obstinately screeched at a high pitch whenever he didn’t.  Does this sound like a child throwing a public tantrum when his parents refuse to buy a bag of candy for breakfast?

Despite his size, he was very aggressive and territorial towards our family parrot, and to my shock, he started feather plucking.  Zorro slowly untangled his fluffy white sweater feather by feather.  Did I cause or somehow instigate the feather plucking? Did I not love him enough?  I did all the right things.  How could this be happening?  Does this make me a bad foster parent?

Parents often have similar trains of thoughts about their children. Did my parenting cause my son’s ADHD?  Is my daughter under-performing in school just to spite me?  Or as parents, we attack each other rather than focus on what should be our goal—raising children to be the best versions of themselves.

I started fostering rescued animals because I love them.  Their love is so simple and unconditional. They didn’t choose to be purchased as pets and live in captivity with us. So, if my focus remains on the goal of getting animals adopted, then I need to consistently do what works to help them.   For Zorro, I needed to observe how he’s feeling through his behaviors, and explore all possibilities of what might be prompting him to pluck.  Sometimes the answer is as simple as not getting enough sleep.  Other times, the determining factors are less within our control, like hormones, puberty.

Behaviors are often the guidebook to children’s true feelings.  For example, they may be nervous about going to a new school because they haven’t been taught how to initiate and maintain conversations comfortably with new people, so they cry and feign illness to avoid going to that new school.  Parents can play the curious detective to find out the root causes of their children’s behaviors, empower them by building in areas where skills are deficit, and in the process, build stronger and closer relationships with their kids.   I hope the parallels drawn to my parrot fostering experience help highlight some common fallacies.

As you now see, we’ve returned to our “12-Step Make It Happen” theme.  Below is a bullet point summary of the steps discussed so far.

  1. Consistency – Disciplined practice
  2. Self-Awareness – Honest observation without judgement
  3. Exploration – Reflect, Troubleshoot

Other Reading:

Parrot Education & Adoption Center (PEAC) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to educating current and potential bird owners on the proper care of companion parrots.   They have interesting and practical classes that teach people on parrot behavior and how to make engaging toys and activities for companion parrots.   Click here to view the birds available for adoption.