Decoding a child's bad behavior, small boy misbehaving

The Hidden Causes Behind Your Child’s Bad Behavior – And How To Stop It

“My one and a half year old boy keeps pulling his sister's hair and biting her. I’ve tried everything to get him to stop. His aggressive behaviour is driving me crazy!

If he continues to pull everyones hair and bite them, how am I supposed to take him anywhere?

How can I send him to daycare?

I don’t understand why he keeps doing this. I’ve taught him over and over again not to hurt others!” 

This was the beginning of an all too familiar conversation I had with one mom. She called me in a panic, worried about her son’s bad behaviour.

As parents, we can easily start to feel worry, panic or shame the moment we see any sort of challenging behaviour from our children.

Conventional parenting traditions tell us that this behaviour is not socially acceptable. Sometimes we worry we are failing ourselves or our children.

It’s not long before our minds take us to all sorts of places, worrying about how our child will fare in the world with such behaviour.

Or worse yet, worrying about what people might say about us or our children.

How can we help kids get back to good behaviour?

So how do we parents get our children back on track? Back to the “good behaviour” we so appreciate? To do this, we can first try to understand what’s actually going on for a child who is exhibiting what I prefer to call challenging behaviour. 

In simple terms, a child that exhibits any kind of behaving “badly” is facing a challenge. Their behaviour is actually a message for us. It’s a symptom we see. 

And, as this New York Times article mentions, when your child brings this behaviour to you, it indicates they feel loved, safe and trusted enough to show you.

There is always an underlying reason for a child that is “acting out” or has behaviour that is off-track. The reason isn’t always the same so let’s take a look at some of the possibilities. 

Where does the behaviour come from?


1 – A child is in need of connection.

Children crave connection but they settle for attention, and this is often at the heart of challenging behaviour, even when you can identify other causes. 

Human connection is a natural need. We need connection just as much as we need food, water, sleep or air. 

When humans feel connected they feel heard, seen, understood, worthy and important in the eyes of someone else. It’s this knowing that allows a person to feel safe in the world. 

Children are especially in need of this as they learn about who they are and how their existence matters. When life has been busy, when children face new, changing or uncertain times their feeling of connection often deserts them. 

These moments can be easy to pinpoint like the arrival of a new baby, or barely detectable to us as parents; Dad said goodbye… but he didn’t ruffle my hair. 

When children don’t feel connected, they can fall prey to acting out in all sorts of ways in a bid to connect.

2 – The child doesn’t have the information, understanding or the required skill set, yet.
According to research, it takes a child many years for their brain to fully develop. In fact, scientists now think that the brain isn’t fully mature until the mid to late 20’s, possibly later. That’s certainly a lot longer than I ever thought! 

Check out the work of Dan Siegel, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, to gain a better understanding of the human brain and all that happens for our kids as they develop.

Children begin life with so much to learn.

The entire world is a new and exciting place to discover. For us parents, with our adult brains, it’s sometimes difficult to understand that this includes so much: every colour, shape, scent, experience, sound, and more. These can seem trivial to us but to our child they are all new..

Knowing that our children haven’t had a lot of time to learn and understand the world might help put things into perspective for us. This can be helpful in letting ourselves really know that it’s okay to slow down and help our children develop the skills they need or the understanding that’s lacking.

3 – The child is not happy with themselves. 
When a child identifies themselves as someone who does bad things or is a bad person they can get stuck in that cycle.

This is the kid who has gotten disconnected from who they really are. 

They’ve forgotten how to connect with their own goodness and/or they’ve forgotten that it’s even there! What we believe about ourselves absolutely impacts the way we carry ourselves out through the day. To “be good”, we need to know that we ARE good.


4 – They’re right!
Ok, this can be hard for us parents to swallow.

A child who voices their opinion or calls you out for something you did that was actually out of line might be labeled with having “bad behaviour.” 

Often, it’s because they aren’t very tactful! They’re not shy to call their grandpa out for using a bad word or holding up the mirror for us to see our shortcomings. Maybe we made a promise and they tell us when we don’t follow through. Or, maybe they highlight a double standard. 

In short, they’re blunt. Their social skills aren’t refined, so they can’t figure out how to break this news to us delicately. They’re loud and often proud about their discoveries!

The truth is, it can be downright difficult to hear that kind of feedback from anyone, especially our kids, and especially when these kinds of truths were probably not tolerated by our own parents. 

We can often feel called to shut that behaviour down fast. 

How to respond well when “bad behaviour” shows up?

For the reasons mentioned above, when our child exhibits so-called “bad behaviour”, what they are actually signaling to us is not that they are bad at all but that they need our help. 

  • They need their cups filled with some connection 
  • They need help learning about the world around them 
  • They need help finding out who they really are  
  • Or they’re holding up a mirror for us and it’s an opportunity for us to take a look.

When we witness “bad behaviour” from our children, whether they’re aged 2 or 16, the behaviour is there to help us lay out a road map. It tells us where we are now and where we want to be. You may discover that there is one obvious cause or that a few causes overlap. Use the information you find to guide your thinking to get back on track. 

Here are some practical ways you can approach each of these scenarios.

Responding when the issue is missing connection

To ensure that you regularly refill your child’s “connection cup,” try offering some individual, uninterrupted time to your child on a regular basis. During this time, the child has the opportunity to soak up the love and attention they need from you.

It’s a way to help keep on top of things and ensure a child’s cup is full. At Hand in Hand Parenting we call it Special Time. 

Special Time is more than regular quality time we spend with our children. To do Special Time, set a timer and give this time a unique name (Many people call it Special Time while others come up with their own personalised name, like golden time or Zak time). Then, let the child take the lead in choosing how to use their time with you. 

I always find it particularly fascinating to see what it is that my children choose to use that time for. It can be very telling of their inner secrets, what they really want or how they really see the world. 

Because Special Time helps to keep a child feeling protected, secure and safe, be sure to offer Special Time even when you don’t think your child needs it. Offering Special Time is like offering a regular way for your child to re-charge connection. 

When there’s an issue of a missing skillset or understanding

Our first step here is to slow down and take a moment to assess what skill or understanding your child might be missing.

For example, with a child who tries to pull the cat's tail: Why would they persist even after you tell them to stop or they may get scratched?

Depending on the age of the child, it could be that the child has not yet learnt how their actions affect other things. They cannot yet comprehend the cause and effect.

Think about how you might bring this understanding to your child.

You could try a general experiment around cause and effect. Try dropping a tissue and watching it float, pick it up, and do it again. Ask your child to try. Through this simple repetitive experiment they learn that they have an ability to make things happen. To have cause and effect.  

Or you could try Playlistening around the actual behaviour. Try a role play, perhaps using a soft toy in place of the cat, with the soft toy vocalising why it doesn’t like having its tail pulled. Keep it light and fun! And be open to where your child wants to lead this play.  

Once kids have a basic understanding, keep creating enough experiences for the child so that the skill becomes a natural way of their being. 

In the meantime, set some warm, firm limits on the behaviour, and listen to the fears and frustrations they may tell you about. Being an anchor, an unwavering support for them, as they overcome their difficulties, can help them push through the learning curve it takes to adopt a new skill or behaviour.

When your child has lost sight of their goodness 

What if your child has essentially lost sight of their own goodness? This is a child who appears to be particularly rigid or inflexible around certain activities, places or people.

It might appear as though they get angry or upset over any little thing you ask of them, or resist any deviation from their own plans. Certain situations may always seem to trigger their upset. These behaviours indicate that a child is holding on to big hurts under the surface. 

You can facilitate a turn-around when a child is feeling badly about themselves, but it does take work. At Hand in Hand we call this an emotional project.

When you work on an emotional project, your mission is to loosen the hurt a child has built up around an issue and help a child offload to it. The Playlistening and Special Time mentioned earlier in this post will help, as will Setting Limits. 

A good limit, set with warmth, gives a child opportunities to cry and to offload the feelings they have collected. You can see more about the big difference it makes to set limits like this

Working on an emotional project takes work, but is possible with warmth and good support.

You can also take time to set up situations where the child actually wins, offering them the opportunity to recreate a new and more positive identity for themselves. 

That re-writing of who they are at a fundamental level through lived experience can be a powerful antidote to the current wiring. Provide lots of experiences for your child to laugh, to win, to feel your love and attention. 

When your child is right. 

Sometimes, this is hard to hear!

You may notice big feelings inside when your child has “called you out.” Parenting ​​can trigger the feelings that are attached to our own difficult early experiences. Looking at where we might be triggered is a great place to start thinking about how to move forward.

Hand in Hand has a brilliant tool called Listening Partnerships that gives parents a practical way to unravel why they might get triggered. 

Sitting with your feelings with another trusted adult provides a safe place to uncover what’s going on. Ask yourself if there is validity to what your child has said. Why does it feel so hard for you to hear? Is  the trigger connected to an experience from your past? For instance, how would your parents have reacted if you had spoken up against what you saw as an injustice or double standard as a child? 

When you are triggered it is hard to think well and hard to take action. When you can clear some of the emotional gunk that clogs your good thinking you are better equipped to face what may come, and use the opportunity for growth. Be kind to yourself. Wonder WHY you feel stuck, rather than punish yourself for it. 

Behaviour is the symptom 

The next time you find yourself witnessing your child exhibiting “bad behaviour,” know that an important message is coming your way! 

The best way to turn that behaviour around is to figure out what’s really going on behind it. To wonder and detect what's really causing it.

Start by taking a moment to scan over the event and be a working detective. 

  • What is the message your child’s behaviour is giving you? 
  • What are concrete things you know to be true? 
  • What are some possible alternatives that can explain your child’s behaviour? 

Use the information your child provides you with to help you determine where you are on the map. Only then, can you begin to get on the road again, and figure out the route forward.

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