Dealing with challenging behavior can be frustrating and exhausting for parents. Using a combination of positive reinforcement and the appropriate discipline strategy based on the type of the behavior is necessary to improve behavior. But there is a preliminary step that is often overlooked when dealing with challenging behavior—understanding where it comes from.

Coming to this understanding may be a challenge, but it is important to remember that behavior is a form of communication. A baby may cry when she is hungry just like an adult may seem irritable when stressed. At any age, we are constantly communicating through our behavior. When attempting to understand, it is important to recognize that a child’s problematic behavior may be her way of telling you what she wants, or it may be a sign that something is not right. Here are some specific factors that may lead to challenging behavior in children:

Developmental Appropriateness

For young children, some challenging behaviors such as temper tantrums, aggressive behaviors, and not listening are developmentally appropriate. Young children are the center of their world and often don’t understand that they cannot always have their way immediately. As children are developing their sense of where they fit into the world, they may use challenging behaviors as a way to immediately express that they are unhappy about something, such as hitting another child after a toy was taken from them.

Parent’s Expectations

An important part of understanding child behavior is looking at your expectations as a parent. Parents need to have fair expectations of their children based on age and developmental level. Parents also need to remember that every child is unique and develops gradually, so it is important not to compare your children to others. When expectations are either too high or too low, children may show more challenging behaviors in response.

Lack of Attention

Children may behave inappropriately in an effort to get attention. Children who feel they are not getting enough attention from their parents may resort to misbehavior as a guaranteed way to draw attention to themselves, even if they know they will be punished. From the perspective of a child, negative attention is better than no attention at all.


Parents are always instructed on the importance of providing structure for their children. When predictable routines are established, like daily meal and bed times, children function best because they feel safe and secure. Sudden or frequent changes in a child’s daily routine, living environment or caregivers can be traumatic and cause feelings of stress and uncertainty.

Developmental Delays

As previously stated, behavior is a form of communication. For children with developmental delays, especially in speech, it may be very difficult to effectively communicate desires and needs verbally. This may cause a child to feel frustrated and anxious and act out in other ways in order to express how she’s feeling.


Problematic behavior can be a symptom of trauma. When attempting to understand challenging behaviors, it is important to take into consideration whether the child has experienced any traumatic events. These events can be severe, like witnessing domestic violence, or seemingly minor, like moving from one house to the next. Either way, children experience events profoundly, but may be too young to understand how to process them appropriately. Trauma is complicated and can often have lasting effects on children.

Identifying the underlying cause is the first step in understanding how to best treat problematic behavior. If you feel that your child’s behavior is becoming difficult to handle, talk to your child’s doctor or a mental health provider about the best way to approach the situation. Therapy with you and your child may be beneficial in helping you to understand your child’s behaviors and what you can do to help. Whether you feel the cause is minor or severe, it is important to give your child the support she needs to learn appropriate behavior.

Share your experience with dealing with and understanding your child’s problematic behavior.

Sarah Wittmann is a Licensed Professional Counselor and provides service coordination in the Birth-to-Three program at Penfield Children’s Center.  Her focus is mental health and she provides extra support to the parents and children with whom she works. 



“Five Facts Every Family Should Know.” PBS Parents. PBS. Web. 27 November 2013. <>.

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Schreiner, Erin. “What Causes Bad Behavior in Children?” ModernMom. Mom, Inc. Web. 27 November 2013. <>.

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