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Why Do Kids Act Out?

Knowing the function of the problem behavior is the key to changing it

Writer: Gia Miller

Clinical Experts: Stephanie A. Lee, PsyD , Stephanie Ruggiero, PsyD

en Español

Tantrums, whining, hitting…all kids act out sometimes. And when they do, parents are left wondering how to get them to just stop it and behave!

The key to helping kids change problem behaviors is understanding what’s driving them in the first place. To do that, some experts use a strategy called Functional Behavior Analysis. FBA is used in therapy for kids on the autism spectrum, and to help kids whose behavior problems in school are interfering with learning. But with a little preparation, parents can use it to help kids at home, too.

The four functions of behavior

In Functional Behavior Analysis, the function refers to the motivation or purpose behind a child’s behavior. But that function isn’t always obvious, and behaviors can have more than one function, explains Stephanie Lee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist. Parents, she says, often have to do some detective work, by thinking through what happened before and after the tantrum or outburst, to figure out what’s actually driving the behavior.

There are four functions of behavior in FBA:

  • Escape or delay
  • Access to tangibles
  • Need for attention
  • Sensory stimulation

Understanding them — and how they inform the techniques experts use to change difficult behaviors — can help you help your child curb problem behaviors more effectively.

1. Escape or delay

The child wants to get away from a situation they don’t like or avoid a task they don’t want to do.

Escape and delay is a big motivator of behavior. Kids have to do A LOT of things they don’t want to do (see eating vegetables, cleaning up, doing homework…). And, when kids don’t want to do something, they’re likely to behave poorly to get out of it, especially if acting up has worked for them in the past.

For example, Dr. Lee says, “I once observed a boy who regularly kicked a girl at school. Eventually I recognized that every time a math lesson began, he’d kick the girl next to him then look at the door.” The boy, she explains, was getting in trouble intentionally. “He was waiting for the principal to come get him, and by the time he went back to class, math was over.”

How to change escape or delay behaviors:

  • Reward kids for appropriate behavior by reducing the demands. For example, if they immediately come to the table without complaint, they only have to eat half of their Brussels sprouts. Offering rewards that allow them do less of the thing they’re trying to avoid can help reduce stress and incentivize good behaviors.
  • Let them know that escape is not an option. Give your child advanced warning of when something must be done. You can even set a timer. When it’s time to do the thing, there is no arguing or negotiating – it will happen, even if you need to assist them in the task. For example, if they refuse to put on their coat, you’ll put it on for them.  
  • Praise them when they do what they’re asked without a fuss. Positive attention for even small, simple tasks like putting away their shoes or turning the TV off the first time they’re asked will encourage that behavior.

2. Access to tangibles

The child wants a specific item (candy or a toy) or activity (access to their iPad).

A tangible could be a treat, the toy their sibling is playing with, or time on an iPad. Sometimes the tangible is obvious; other times it’s not. For example, a child who keeps asking for things at the grocery store. “Mom, can we buy this?” “Can we buy that?” The badgering goes on until the frustrated parent offers their phone as a distraction. Sound familiar? It’s obvious the child wants something, but it’s likely the end goal is access to the phone rather than an extra bag of cookies.

Likewise, Dr. Lee recalls a parent telling her that after a tantrum over ice cream, they gave their child peanuts because they didn’t want them to go to bed hungry. In situations like this, she points out that the real tangible may actually be the peanuts, not the ice cream.

How to change behaviors when kids are seeking access to a tangible:

  • Create a contract. Prevent poor behaviors tangibles by being proactive, not reactive. For example, before heading into the grocery store, make a deal with your child: If they don’t ask for anything while you’re in the store, you’ll buy them a cookie before you leave.
  • Remove the tangible from the environment. Hiding tangibles can help. For example, kids will be more upset about an iPad they’re not allowed to use if it’s sitting right there on the kitchen counter. The same goes for your phone. If your child cannot play with it, then, as much as possible, be careful not use it in front of them.
  • Let them know when they can, and can’t, have access to the tangible. If your child is allowed 30 minutes of iPad time when they get home from school, set a timer to let them know how much time they have. When the timer goes off, remind them of the next time they’ll have access to the iPad and for how long. Visual schedules can also help children understand that the item isn’t going away forever, it’s just for right now.

3. Need for Attention

The child wants attention, usually from a parent or teacher – and any attention will do, even getting yelled at.

When kids act out, Dr. Lee says, “they don’t actually care if the attention they get is positive or negative, they just want their attention big, bold, and immediate.” It’s about the duration, proximity, and intensity, she says. Because of this, kids often act in a way that’s likely to get them the most attention, even if that means getting in trouble.

For example, a student who’s quietly working at their desk might receive mild praise from the teacher. The praise probably won’t be for very long or very enthusiastic, and the teacher might be several desks away. But, if that same kid throws their pencil, it’s likely that the teacher will come over immediately and say, excitedly, “What are you doing! We don’t throw things in here. What’s going on?”

Similarly, just when you’re beginning a work call or engaged in cooking dinner, one of your children grabs their sibling’s toy and hits them. Or, they climb on top of the sofa…and jump. They know they’ll get in trouble, but they do it anyway, because they also know it will get your attention.

How to change attention-seeking behavior:

  • Set kids up to occupy themselves. If your child often acts up when you need to do something else, being proactive can help. Set your child up with an activity that will last for the duration of your call or dinner prep. And if your child regularly craves physical touch, make sure to give them a hug before you log on to your meeting.
  • Planned ignoring. The most powerful way to change a behavior that’s motivated by attention is to refuse to reward the behavior with attention, says Dr. Lee. Children won’t give up their need for attention easily, so be prepared for the behaviors to get worse before they get better – this is called an extinction burst. But eventually, the behaviors will stop. You should only use planned ignoring when you have the time, safe space and patience to get over the hump with your kid.
  • Give regular and specific positive attention for good behavior.  Whenever you can, make a point of using labeled praise for behaviors you want to see. For example, “Great job sharing your crayons with your brother.”
  • Help kids practice patience. Start by asking kids to be patient for short, predictable periods of time. For example, set a five-minute timer before you go to the bathroom and let them know you’ll be back by the time it goes off. Praise them for waiting patiently. Then gradually increase the time as kids get more comfortable.

4. Sensory stimulation

The child does something because it feels good, provides comfort, relieves pain, helps them expend energy, or calms them down.

Behaviors driven by a need for sensory stimulation — or to stop disturbing stimulation — are commonly seen in kids on the autism spectrum as well as other children with sensory processing issues. “These kids are seeking out sensory input because they like the way it makes them feel,” explains Stephanie Ruggiero, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Or, she adds,  “they’re behaving in a way that limits their access to certain things because their senses are overstimulated.”

Examples of sensory-seeking behaviors:

  • Chewing on objects, like pen caps or clothing
  • Spinning in circles, flapping hands, crashing into furniture
  • Making repetitive sounds vocally (like clicking or humming noises) or physically (like tapping hands or feet) in places or situations where silence is expected
  • Touching or smelling other people or things repeatedly, often without asking
  • Self-injury to provide sensory input (such as banging their head because it feels good, skin picking to feel the skin under their nails).

Examples of sensory-avoidant behaviors:

  • Refusing to eat certain foods, or wear certain clothing
  • Covering ears when they believe sounds are too loud
  • Avoiding certain people or things due to their scent
  • Self-injury to avoid something (such as banging their head to avoid hearing a bothersome sound, skin picking to soothe their anxiety).

How to change sensory-seeking or sensory-avoidant problem behaviors:

  • Replace a harmful behavior with a safe alternative. For example, if a child constantly picks at their skin to ease their anxiety, occupying their hands with a fidget toy or something else they can “pick” at, like putty or stickers, can help prevent the behavior.
  • Set limits around the behavior. Some behaviors, like making sounds or spinning around are okay in some settings, but problematic in others. Help your child become aware of their behavior, learn when and where it’s appropriate, and work together to find an appropriate replacement behavior for when they need sensory stimulation.
  • Find solutions to help your child cope with the loud noise, uncomfortable clothing, bad smell, etc. You can minimize or eliminate your child’s sensory-avoidant behaviors by making accommodations that meet their needs. For example, purchase noise-cancelling headphones, prioritize comfort over style when it comes clothing or suggest a family member not wear a certain fragrance when around your child.

Collect data to determine the function

Dr. Ruggiero says the best way to determine the function of the problem behavior is to collect data.

“I’m a big proponent of what we call ABC data, which stands for antecedent, behavior, consequence,” she explains. “That means you should track what’s happening right before the behavior, what the behavior entailed, the duration, and your response to the behavior.” This allows you to find the pattern, leading you to the function.

Ruggerio says that if the behavior happens several times a day, you may be able to see the pattern within a week, but if it occurs only once or twice a week, it could take a month or more.

Once you’ve determined the function of a problem behavior and implement a plan to change it, continue to track the behavior for at least two weeks (the amount of time it takes to begin forming a new habit) to see if there’s any improvement. “It can take longer if you need to teach a replacement behavior or a new skill,” says Dr. Ruggerio. “And, it’s also possible that your child may go through an extinction burst where the frequency and intensity increases before you begin to see a change.”

If nothing changes, you might have misidentified their motivation or there is more than one reason for their behavior.

Once you’ve successfully eliminated a behavior, if it returns at a later point, begin the process again. Children do change over time, which means that the function of their behavior can also change.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do kids act out?

Kids often act out because they want to escape or delay a task they don’t like, because they want a specific item (like a toy, candy, etc.), or because they want attention. Kids with sensory issues might also act out because they need more or less sensory stimulation.

This article was last reviewed or updated on April 25, 2023.