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In her book “Connection Parenting”, Pam Leo uses a lovely example to help us understand children’s behavior. She says that when you have a plant that’s not doing too great, you rarely focus on what’s wrong with it but rather on what it needs: more water? More sun? More nutrients?
Pam says that it is important to adopt the same approach when dealing with your child’s behavior and to focus on what could be sparking that behavior. In other words, understanding the factors that drive your child’s behavior is the easiest way to put an end to misbehavior.
We all have certain things that “push our buttons”, things that affect how we react to certain situations or events. The same is true for you kid – actually it’s worse for her because unlike us, not all children are capable of associating a stimulus (fatigue) with a reaction (tantrum). In other words, when it’s late and you’re worn out, you go to bed – when it’s late and your child is worn out, he throws a tantrum. That’s just the way it is. The good news is that children’s behavior is commonly triggered by the same things, and we now know some of the things that may help explain their behavior.
The 18 most influential factors on most children’s behavior
1) Fatigue has an impact on your child’s behavior
Children who are tired and worn out act out more than those who are relaxed. Fatigue has been identified as one of the most common factors behind your child’s inappropriate behavior, and that makes perfect sense – we too are the worst versions of ourselves when we are tired – for example at the end of the day – and we tend to act differently than when we are relaxed.
If you must wake up your children every morning, then there are high chances that they are not getting sufficient sleep. Ensuring that your child gets sufficient rest is a first step to help reduce problem behavior.
Like fatigue, hunger is one of the factors that brings out the worst in kids and adults alike. That is why it is not uncommon for your child to “behave worse” at certain moments of the day (for example right after school) or when the wait time between meals is too long. Adopting some form of eating schedule can be an easy way to make meals more regular.
3) Difficulty dealing with strong emotions
When you are feeling anxious or stressed, you know that reading a book or listening to your favorite music can help relax you. That is not quite how children function. A child struggling with strong emotions such as anger and anxiety will often react to those emotions by lashing out or in ways that are commonly described as “problem behavior”. He could act aggressive, “listen to nothing or no one”, appear to struggle with concentration issues or simply behave in a hypersensitive manner.
One of the reasons that explain this behavior is that young children are yet to learn how to deal with strong emotions, and this is reflected in inappropriate behavior. The good news is that simple age-appropriate tools can help teach your child how to react more appropriately to difficult emotions.
Although there is very conflicting information about the foods that affect children’s behavior, various studies suggest that you should be careful about artificial food dyes, too much sugar and dairy products if your child is lactose intolerant.
If you suspect that your child’s behavior is affected by certain foods, regularly tracking what she eats (and her behavior) can help you identify if certain foods are behind that behavior.
The expectations you have of your child influence his behavior. The more you expect him to act inappropriately, the more he will. The opposite is also true – showing your child that you believe he is capable of good behavior increases the chances that he will behave according to your expectations.
This is why positive reinforcement is one of the most effective discipline strategies to help you rid your child of inappropriate behavior. That said, this strategy is not designed as a means to “bribe your child” to obtain specific behavior. Rather, it is supposed to help him reduce specific negative behavior and replace that with positive behavior over the long-term. If you would like to try out positive reinforcement in a way that actually works, specific tools exist to walk you through the process.
6) Too much to do
Children who are overwhelmed are more easily tired, and children who are tired are more likely to behave in inappropriate ways.
7) Behavioral disorders
Behavioral disorders are a common reason that explains behavior problems in children. These could lead to issues such as working memory difficulties, hyperactivity, focus and concentration challenges and so on.
If you have doubts about your child’s development, please consult a specialist as soon as you can. Behavioral disorders caught early are easier to treat, and your entire family will benefit if your child is able to receive the professional help he needs early.
8) Lack of routines and/or consistency
Children are creatures of habit, and when those habit change too often, they are likely to react in ways that may be described as “problem behavior”. This need for consistency explains why your child will throw a tantrum at the slightest change.
Routines provide children with roots and a sense of stability. That’s why it is important to adopt routines for the most important moments of the day – mornings, after school, evenings – because those are also the moments when your child is most sensitive and in need of reassurance.
9) Change in family situation
Change is a common factor that influences your child’s behavior. Divorce and separations, death in the family, illness, and so on, are likely to modify your child’s behavior. Other changes such as the transition from preschool to elementary school or even the fact of having to change teachers can also influence your child’s behavior.
Have your heard about the Bobo doll experiment? During the 1960s, Albert Bandura divided 24 children into groups. One of the groups was exposed to adults acting aggressively toward the Bobo doll. The researchers found that when they later placed the children in a room in which there was this doll, the children in the group that was exposed to aggressive behavior tended to act more aggressively toward the doll. Although the study had its fair share of limitations, it helped show that children can acquire certain social behavior from their environment.
What this means is that the company your child keeps, or even the programs he watches, can have an impact on his behavior. If you’re struggling with your child’s behavior, watch his models to determine if he could be picking that behavior from his environment.
11) Your connection
Child specialists agree that feelings of disconnect are among the most common factors that influence children’s behavior. In other words, the more your child feels disconnected, the higher the chances that she will behave inappropriately.
That is why it is important to connect with your children every day. Finding simple things to do together every day strengthens your connection and increases the chances that they will behave appropriately.
The good news is that there are many easy activities that you can do in 20 minutes or less. Below is a FREE 30-DAY CHALLENGE with activities to get your started.
12) Discipline methods
Certain discipline methods make your child’s behavior worse, or they can even have a long-term negative impact on his social and psychological wellbeing that may span well beyond the childhood years.
Behavior such as shaming, criticizing, frequently yelling, humiliating or belittling your child are inappropriate and ineffective in making him change his behavior.
Being aware of different appropriate discipline strategies can help you identify an appropriate “discipline toolbox” for you and your family.
Children tend to believe the words that are used to describe them, and those words can shape how they behave. The more you describe your child as “aggressive”, the more he will act in line with that label. The more you describe her as “helpful”, the more she will act helpful.
Labels have the power to shape behavior, so it is important to pay attention to how you describe your child. Replacing negative labels (“nosy”) with positive ones (curious) can have a positive impact on your child’s behavior. That said, labels are not supposed to excuse inappropriate behavior – a bully is NOT a born leader.
14) Rigid parenting
Many years ago, Diane Baumrind undertook a study to find out whether certain parenting practices increased appropriate behavior. She found that children whose parents were authoritative, that is, firm but receptive, were better behaved and had fewer social and psychological issues.
Baumrind’s studies continue to be relevant today, and other researchers have come to the same conclusions:
- Children need clear expectations and consistency in disciplining.
- Being too excessive (permissive or authoritarian) leads to negative social, behavioral and psychological outcomes.
- Being open-minded and supportive reduces negative behavior.
- Being too rigid in your parenting (always using no! stop! Don’t! etc.) can have a negative impact on your child’s behavior.
Fear makes kids do crazy things. It can make them lie or act in inappropriate ways in an attempt to hide that fear. It can also be the reason behind behavior such as anxiety.
Several studies have shown that children with behavioral disorders benefit from regular exercise. The studies suggest that exercise has a positive impact on your child’s brain and reduces behavior such as hyperactivity and aggression.
In one study, researchers found that problem behavior decreased in children and adolescents who exercised regularly. The researchers suggest that exercise sends messages to the brain that help regulate behavior, reduce depression and increase focus and attention. Although the researchers were uncertain about whether exercise could benefit children with mild behavioral problems (the study was undertaken among children with severe behavioral problems) it won’t hurt your child!
The good news is that even simple exercises that your child enjoys (for example jumping on the trampoline for 10 minutes) can be a great way to exercise.
17) Too much screen time
While it is still difficult to say how much screen time is too much, an increasing number of studies has found that too much screen time can have an impact on your child’s behavior. It can increase aggression and concentration problems and can also make your child ignore other important areas of life.
There is a simple way to know if your child is spending too much time on screens – if that is all he seems to do, then it’s too much.
18) Developmental stage
Children behave in specific ways depending on their age. Tantrums are common among three-year-olds, two-year-olds have no problem playing alone but do not like sharing their toys, and the concentration span of children varies depending on their age.
Do not expect your child to behave in a certain way or to achieve certain things just because “other kids his age can”. Childhood is not a race. That said, if you are worried about your child’s development, please get help from a specialist. The majority of developmental issues are easier to deal with when they are diagnosed early.
The key takeaway for dealing with your child’s behavior
If you child is behaving inappropriately, be observant. Keep a diary and note down the events preceding that behavior and, more importantly, identify your own “discipline toolbox” to help you deal more calmy with difficult behavior.