A Parent’s Primer: What’s Up with My Child’s Behavior?

Boy with sheet cape standing on washing machineParenting is tough. It is perhaps the toughest job in the world. We give everything of ourselves for the well-being of our children. If our child has special needs such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or some other neurobehavioral issue, the degree of difficulty rises exponentially. With these children, the answers aren’t necessarily in the standard parenting books.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how many times friends and colleagues have either politely changed the subject or given me the dreaded “what-the-hell-do-you-do-this-for” look when I tell them what my kids have done. (Hint: I have a line item in my yearly budget for replacing toilets; I have to do that once or twice a year on average.) The bottom line is if your kid has special needs, the usual avenues of family and friend support are often not helpful in getting advice to resolve behavior issues. While they mean well, our family and friends often lack the knowledge and experience to give us sound support and advice for our unique circumstances.

In this article, I want to help you help yourselves. You aren’t alone, and you have the tools to deal with many of the situations your child will throw your way.

What to do when your child is doing something you don’t understand? Why is he drinking entire bottles of ketchup in the middle of the night? (True story.) Why is he writing his name in excrement on the wall? (Also a true story.) Why on earth is he doing homework but not turning it in for a grade? (Seriously … another true story.)

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Don’t panic.
  3. Ask yourself this question: “Why?” In counseling circles, we ask, “What is the function of the behavior?” (Yeah, we like to use 15 words where one will do. Go figure.) The answer to this question is going to give you a lot of insight into what is going on and help guide you in your efforts to deal with the situation.

Entire books have been written on how to do this. However, for now, take a close look at the W’s: When does the behavior occur? What happens before, during, and after the behavior? Who does the behavior happen around? Where does the behavior tend to occur?

Based on your analysis, see if it fits with the following common functions of behavior:

  • To get something: People do things to get things. It might be a toy, it might be attention, it might be food, etc.
  • To get something to stop: People do things to get stuff to stop. For example, I just told one of my kids to quiet down because they were distracting me while I wrote this article.
  • To escape something: Similar to the previous function, if we don’t like the activity we are doing, we will do things to get away from it.
  • It feels good: We tend to do things that feel good. Go figure.
  • It’s a reflex: We don’t have much choice with these behaviors (startle reflex, for example).

There are other behavior functions, but those above cover most situations. It’s important to figure out the function because missing this step can make your attempts to deal with the situation less effective, at best, and possibly make things worse. For example, a child who runs away from you every time you want him or her to do chores is going to need one kind of intervention if you figure the function is escape (making the child finish the task but giving a big reward for completing it) as opposed to if the function is attention (withdrawing attention except when the child is on task).

I hope this information helps make your day-to-day challenges less challenging. Please feel free to comment below with any thoughts, questions, or suggestions. Next time, we will talk about reinforcement. Hang in there, parents, and remember: Breathe and don’t panic! You got this.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Grey

    November 12th, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    I am not sure who these parents are who naturally assumed that being a parent would be easy. Hello, don’t you remember your own childhoods and the ways that you punished your own parents? I mean, I am not sure why this always seems to get lost along the way, but I never thought that I would just magically know everything that there was to know about being a parent and be able to be this gifted person at it. I think that a lot of what we learn about being a parent of course comes from our own childhood but a lot of it is also about trial and error. getting it wrong the first time but choosing to do it better the next is something that all parents have to resolve to do. Unfortunately there is not some one size fits all solution to every parenting problem out there.

  • Jean Nystrom

    November 12th, 2012 at 11:45 AM

    I quote an article I just read moments ago of which I think is pertinent to the above article: “Many progressive behavioral medicine practitioners have come to realize
    that although a disorder may be primarily physical or psychological in
    nature, it’s always a disorder of the whole person – not just of the
    body or the mind,” Dr. Slobodzien adds.

    I truly believe that ADD/ADHD is a result of a biochemical imbalance in the mind which in turn effects the body. That is why the drugs are not working because they are treating the symptoms not the cause and do not take into account the effects the medications have on both the body and mind. After seeing the medications fail with my daughter I turned to a neurofeedback/edufeedback platform called Play Attention and have seen my theory proven. This program takes into account that rather then try to treat the symptoms, treat the cause and shape the behavior accordingly. Thus, the symptoms go away and new behavior develops. After seeing the results in my own daughter I realized the body and mind can become one.

  • janine

    November 12th, 2012 at 12:34 PM

    well kids can sure be the bundles of energy!from years of parenting,I think they all do stuff that may seem weird at first.I have even had my pot-loving brother say kids have some sort of a permanent high that weans off as they grow up.I thought this was a joke but when you look at little children and compare that to being high it matches up quite a bit.

    Not that children are high,but what I want to say is that their behavior can seem a bit off at times.So your suggestions of analyzing why they are actually doing it would be the perfect follow through.Once found the habit can then be controlled to a fair extent and the bundle of energy can once again be the bundle of joy!

  • Isabell

    November 13th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    I see a lot of parents who get so caught up in wanting this perfect child that they forget that this is just a kid, that they don’t need to be perfect. that really there is no such thing as perfect. It is more about raising a child that is good, not perfect.

  • Delia

    November 13th, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    I’ve had many moments where I was shocked at what my kids did.But I think what we do after that is more important.A huge storm from parents followed by some sort of punishment isn’t doing the child any good.But rather an understanding parent who goes about things less as a parent and more as a friend would be a lot more beneficial.And so that has been the funda I have followed with my kids.

  • Leighton

    November 14th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    Too many parents are afraid of what this makes them look like that they only want to stop the behavior and not really figure out what’s going on. You have to get to the root of the problem to make any kind of real difference.

  • Jack

    September 25th, 2014 at 12:25 AM

    You can never achieve expertise in this job. Parenting is supposed to be the toughest job in the entire world. While performing tasks, you don’t know if this would work or not. You keep on learning in this job. I like the blog as these are some useful techniques which I can try to look forward to.

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