What’s Causing My Child’s Difficult Behavior?

When we interact with a child who is struggling with difficult behavior, what we notice most is the behavior. This makes sense because it’s the behavior that we interface with and it’s the behavior that is causing a problem for us. But because the behavior is the thing they see, many parents assume it’s where their focus should be. This is true in part, but what is also true is that the behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. Child therapists know this, and they understand that many factors need to be understood to create lasting behavioral change for a child. Understanding these behind-the-scenes influences and how they contribute to a child’s behavior is critical to the process of creating change. These factors, or influences, are not always easy to see. If parents aren’t aware of them, they may not even cross their minds. However, they are important, very important—critical to our understanding of how and why a child is doing what he or she is doing. Though not always visible, the factors lurking behind the scenes influence the current picture as much as the behaviors you see in front of you.

What are these factors? These are the main areas I think about when helping parents help their kids. I consider the developmental level, or where a child is in their natural development. Different age ranges contain different challenges for kids, so it’s important to know how their developmental level is creating the backdrop for a current situation. Another important factor is temperament, which is how a child’s nervous system is wired to react, and has a big impact on a kid’s behavior. It’s also important to factor in current life issues—for example, how a child’s social relationships are doing, how family and school life are going, and what current situations are helping or stressing the child. An additional major factor is how the parents are doing. Are they stressed out, overworked, in conflict, or doing okay? And what kind of skills do they need to work on to make family life better? Lastly, what skills does the child need to work on? For instance, are they good at communicating their needs and upsets? Are they good at problem solving? These are certainly important skill areas for kids.

The interplay of these factors is what creates the behavior you see, so it’s very important to consider these elements first. If we can start by increasing our awareness of the behind-the-scenes influences, then we will be starting with a more complete understanding of our child’s behavior. This understanding provides a solid foundation from which to move on to the next step—creating solutions. Making clear sense of a child’s behaviors by looking at all of the underlying factors may seem like a complicated and daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. You just need to know what to focus on.

Spend a few minutes thinking about the following questions. Stopping to consider the things that most influence your child’s behavior will arm you with the information you need to create an effective game plan for behavior change.

  • Developmental level. Is your child doing okay in school or falling behind? Are they keeping up with same-age peers academically and socially? Are there things physically that seem extra hard for your child? How about cognitive abilities like staying focused and organized? Get a feel for how your child is faring in his or her physical, intellectual and emotional development.
  • Temperament. The main temperament traits are: sensitivity, intensity, adaptability, persistence, focus, impulse control and activity level. Rate your child low, medium or high on each of these inborn traits. Then note which ones seem to be contributing to his or her most difficult moments; note—it’s probably the traits that are particularly high or low that are problematic.
  • Current life stressors: Have there been any big changes in your child’s life? Have any significant people come into the picture or left? Is schoolwork wearing him or her down or are they putting too much pressure on themselves? Talk with your child to get a good feel for the things that are adding stress to his or her life.
  • Family and social relationships: Does your child have friends? Are they lonely or isolated? Or are friends putting pressure on him or her to fit in or do things that they’re not comfortable with? What about family? Is your child getting along at home? Family and social relationships can either be a great source of support or stress for a child.
  • How are you—the parent(s)—doing? It’s equally important to think about your own stress level. Are you burned out? Overworked? Not sleeping well? Are your relationships nourishing you or do they feel like a drain? If the parents aren’t in good shape—the ship is sinking.
  • What skills do you need to work on? Are there areas of your parenting that need a tune-up? For instance, are you good at setting and holding limits with your child? What about helping your child sort through his or her feelings? Another important area is partnering. Are you and your spouse or partner working well together? There are many skill areas for parents to develop.
  • What skills does your child need to work on? I think that the most important skills for kids to work on are what I call The Five Core Skills, which are: Understanding Feelings, Communication, Flexibility, Respect, and Problem Solving. Kids who have solid abilities in these skill areas are kids who have much more maturity and self-control. Try to identify which of these skills your child needs most to work on.

Once you’ve identified the main influences on your child’s behavior, you’re then poised to create a plan of action that gives them support and guidance in the areas they most need. Parenting from this vantage point is informed parenting and is much more effective because you’re moving from a reactive stance to a more thoughtful one. Take some time to get to know these behind-the-scenes influences and you’ll gain clarity on the issues that are contributing to your child’s behaviors.

My very best to you and your family,


For more information on all of the areas listed, including suggestions for help see my new book Better Behavior: Helping Kids Create Change and Improve Relationships. Available in both print and eBook at: Amazon, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo.

Information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute professional advice for any specific medical or psychological condition.