Why Do Some Kids Struggle With Problem Behavior?

When children have frequent emotional outbursts, it can be a sign that they haven’t yet developed the skills they need to cope with feelings like frustration, anxiety and anger. Handling big emotions in a healthy, mature way requires a variety of skills, including:

  • Impulse control
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Problem solving
  • Delaying gratification
  • Negotiating
  • Communicating wishes and needs to adults
  • Knowing what’s appropriate or expected in a given situation

Other children may seem to struggle more with boundaries and following rules. They may be defiant, or ignore instructions or try to talk their way out of things that aren’t optional. You may notice patterns of behavior that seem to crop up at certain times of the day (like bedtime) during certain tasks (like during homework) or with certain people. You also might notice that your child acts out particularly when she is at home but not when she is at school, or vice versa.

Tantrums and other kinds of acting out are often a normal and even healthy part of childhood. They are a sign that a child is becoming more independent — indications that a child is testing boundaries, developing skills and opinions, and exploring the world around them.

But when a child is acting out a lot, it can strain the parent-child relationship, creating regular frustration and resentment that isn’t healthy in the family. Whether your child is in the early stages of learning about self-regulation and boundaries, or if your family has been struggling and you are looking for help, this guide is designed to explain more about how kids learn to manage their behavior, what parents can do to aid in the process and how to get more support if you need it.

Tantrums can be a learned behavior

Sometimes parents feel that tantrums and other instances of problem behavior are intentional or manipulative. However, clinicians who specialize in children’s behavior agree that tantrums are generally not a voluntary behavior on a child’s part — but they may be what is known as a “learned behavior.” That means that kids learn that having a tantrum gets them the result that they want.

In other words, while a child who struggles to control her emotions might not be consciously calculating her tantrums, she might resort to them because she hasn’t learned a better way to solve problems or communicate her needs. Well-meaning parents often respond to tantrums by trying to fix whatever caused the problem — by comforting the child or giving her whatever she is asking for. Unfortunately, this reinforces the tantrum behavior, making kids more likely to continue having tantrums and less likely to develop more sophisticated ways to manage their feelings.