Top Reasons Children Act Out

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | July 8, 2020

Kids have rough days. Children can display less-than-perfect behaviors for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’re tired, disappointed, or frustrated. Perhaps they’ve eaten too much sugar or are exhausted from a particularly grueling day at school.

But what if the rough days are happening more frequently and unwanted behaviors are becoming a problematic pattern?

A trend of misbehaving or “acting out” can be a sign that the problem is more than a random bad day. Many adults incorrectly assume that recurring bad behavior indicates their children only need stricter discipline. Instead, children acting out can be a red flag that something is wrong and they lack the ability to verbally express the problem.

Children aren’t born knowing how to express their feelings. Instead, when things get stressful, frustrating, or scary, they may demonstrate their emotions by throwing a tantrum, disobeying instructions, or being unwilling to cooperate. If those unwanted emotions remain unidentified and unaddressed, a pattern of problematic — and sometimes destructive — behaviors may occur.

Table of Contents

What Is Acting Out?

We often use the term “acting out” to describe behaviors parents do not like. Acting out behaviors are disruptive to the family’s day to day functioning. Some acting out behaviors are also to be expected in the process of child development. As children become more independent and form their identities, they might push some boundaries and rebel against parental authority. Doing so allows them to test their independence in a safe environment. Children and adolescents may also misbehave to communicate thoughts, feelings or experiences that are hard to put into words.

 are hard to put into words

Even though acting out is typical behavior, it looks different for each child and depends on an individual’s development, personality and how they cope with stress or painful emotions. Regardless, all behaviors, including misbehaviors, have a purpose. Children act out to reach a goal or have a need met, even if they are unaware of what they want.

For example, a child who does not want to clean his room might throw a tantrum. His parents then may focus on calming him down and forget about his chores, unintentionally reinforcing his outburst. The child learns throwing tantrums gets him out of doing things he does not want to do, and he might behave this way to avoid other tasks in the future.

Many misbehaviors allow children to meet their short term needs. The problem occurs when these behaviors are ineffective in the long term and Hcontinually impact daily functioning, as well as relationships.

Signs It’s Something More

Any misbehavior that significantly impacts a child’s life or lasts for several months may point to an issue. For example, if a child is experiencing high levels of stress at home, they might have repeated outburst to deal with the overwhelming feelings. Such behaviors may require a professional to identify the issue and address a family’s unique needs.

Overall, if a child acts out due to something other than normal development, you might notice the following signs:

  • The misbehavior interferes with school or a child’s day-to-day functioning.
  • The misbehavior interferes with a parent’s job or functioning at home.
  • The misbehavior affects the child’s ability to build and maintain healthy relationships.
  • The behavior involves self-harming or suicidal threats, thoughts or gestures.
  • Typical parenting techniques no longer work to change the behavior.

When behaviors have complex underlying issues, it can be challenging for parents to effectively identify the cause and address the problem, despite good intentions. Likewise, parents might not know if a mental health issue exists. For many children, problems like anxiety and depression can lead to behavioral problems. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three children aged 3 to 17 with behavior problems also has anxiety, and about one in five has depression.

A child or teen often does not have the self-awareness to communicate the reason they are misbehaving, which also makes it challenging to identify the problem. However, parents are not alone if their child is behaving in ways they cannot understand or seem to change. It is not always easy to pinpoint the reasons for misbehavior, and a range of factors can influence a child. A mental health professional can help a family figure out what’s going on and develop a treatment plan to teach coping skills. For example, at Hillside®, we use dialectical behavior therapy to help children and families develop a better understanding of problematic behaviors and replace ineffective coping skills with successful ones.

Common Reasons Children Act Out

Common Reasons Children Act Out

Generally, mental health professionals believe children act out at school or at home to reach a goal. Rudolf Dreikurs, a psychiatrist and educator, identified four goals of misbehavior, and postulated that people feel motivated to act a specific way to achieve a sense of belonging. Dreikurs’ ideas continue to guide parents, teachers and counselors today. His four goals of misbehavior include the following.

1. To Gain Attention

If children don’t believe they are getting the positive attention they want from a parent, teacher or another authority figure, they will accept negative attention. A child may feel they do not belong unless others notice them.Therefore, a child who feels neglected might rather have a parent yell at them than feel ignored. If a parent gets annoyed with a child’s behavior, it’s likely the child is acting out for attention.

2. To Have Power

Children don’t have a lot of control over the environments or situations they find themselves in. They don’t choose whether they attend school, and they have no say in a parent’s absence during a business trip. Acting out gives children the chance to feel like they’re in control when they otherwise may feel helpless.
A young child might seek power by throwing a tantrum or disobeying a parent’s request. As the child grows older, they may become even more determined to take charge of their life by participating in destructive behaviors or resisting a parent’s demands. When a child seeks power, it may cause a parent to feel challenged and the need to control the child.

3. To Get Revenge

If children can’t obtain power or attention, they may seek a way to get even with one or both parents as a form of punishment. The child may believe they are unloved and only feel they belong if they can make others experience the same pain they are going through. They might say hurtful things or damage a family member’s belongings — whatever it takes to punish them. Children who seek revenge may cause parents to feel hurt or shocked by their behavior.

4. To Display Inadequacy

A child might display inadequacy to reach one of the above goals or if they believe they are unable to meet their parents’ expectations. Children who feel they aren’t good enough might refuse to participate in an activity or complete a task. They may be hesitant to engage with others and withdraw from specific situations. If a parent doesn’t know what to do for their child and feels desperate for a solution, the child is probably hiding behide the screen of inadequacy.

Another Possibility

In some cases, acting out may be a sign of mental illness such as attention-deficit hyperactive disorder in children. Especially in children, symptoms of depression can also be displays of anger, outbursts, or other externalizing behaviors. A mental health professional can determine if a mood or anxiety disorder, as well as another mental health issue is contributing to your child’s misbehavior. Once the cause of the misbehaviors is identified, effective treatment can begin.

What Can I Do If My Child Is Acting Out?

Most children will act out at some point and you can choose appropriate ways to respond. If your child or teen is acting out, there are ways to connect with them and help them change their behaviors. Here’s what you can do to address your child’s needs and make them feel understood.

1. Seek Understanding

The first step to helping your child overcome a behavior problem is to understand why they are acting out. Think of your child’s behavior as a form of communication and a way to reach out to you. When you understand the motivation behind their actions, you can figure out how to respond and meet your child’s needs. Knowing the reason behind their behavior will also help you teach them ways to practice self-control.

If your child misbehaves, take a moment to consider what they may be trying to communicate to you before you react. Your response to the child’s misbehavior can help deescalate the situation or make the situation worse. Responding in a calm and gentle manner with the focus on helping the child acknowledge what he or she maybe feeling at the moment can be a good start.

When things are calm, take time to think through the situations that the misbehaviors occured — if your child acts out with one parent, but not the other, or misbehaves in school, but not at home, think about the goals they may be trying to reach or the needs they want you to meet. Consider the time of day they typically misbehave, where they usually act out and with whom. Once you understand the situation better, you can help your child solve the problem.

Keep in mind that all children need to feel loved, accepted, and secure. They also need to feel recognized and valued as unique individual as they move towards independence. Seeking to understand what motivates a child’s behavior can be a powerful way to show that you care about what the child is thinking and feeling. It can also help the child increase understanding of one’s own thinking, feelings, and behaviors.

2. Open the Lines of Communication

Your children want to know that you are there to love and support them no matter what. Let them know they can come to you with any problems or concerns they might have. Encourage them to talk about their emotions and share their thoughts and give them your full attention whenever they do. Listen attentively and resist the urge to immediately offer solutions or advice. Even when the situation seems trivial or illogical for you, try your best to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective. Validate that the emotions they are feeling are real to them. Once you truly listen, you can ask how your child wants you to help.

3. Set an Example

Children learn how to act by observing and imitating others, so your behavior in stressful or challenging situations significantly influences your child. You can help your child make good decisions by modeling the way you want them to act. For example, if you’re stuck in traffic and running late for an appointment and have your child in the car, practice managing your emotions and staying calm.

4. Be Consistent

Consistency is a critical element in parenting. When you’re consistent in your reactions to a child’s behavior, you set boundaries and create a clear path to follow. You also help your child learn to recognize and change poor behaviors. Without consistency, life can feel confusing. Therefore, set a few necessary, reasonable and easy-to-understand rules. Be specific about your expectations and what will happen if they misbehave. If the teen or child does not obey the rules, make sure you follow through with the consequences.

5. Accept Support

Parenting can be challenging, especially when a child misbehaves for reasons that are hard to identify or understand. There are plenty of resources available to help you figure out the cause of your child’s behavior and determine the next step. You might contact a parenting coach or therapist to help you add to your parenting toolbox or gain more insight into the problematic behaviors. You can join a group or class to find additional support. If you enjoy reading, you might find parenting books helpful. There is no shame in asking for help when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or concerned about your child’s mental health. Seeking professional support means that you are doing everything that you can to help your child. Parenting a child with mental health problems can feel lonely but you do not have to make hard decisions alone.

Contact Hillside Today

It’s common for children to act out in response to stress or unmet needs. Like adults, children also experience a range of emotions and sometimes worry about things they can’t control. And, like adults, children don’t always know how to handle those emotions, so they rely on behaviors as both a coping mechanism and a signal to others that something isn’t right. In most cases, it is possible to identify and address the source of the problem without outside intervention.
However, there are times when a child’s behavior goes beyond typical acting out. If your child’s starts to display a pattern of problematic behaviors or if you’re concerned about their mental health, we want to help. For over 100 years, Hillside has been dedicated to helping children and their families. As one of the leading experts in children and adolescents mental health, Hillside offers cutting-edge mental health treatment programs through residential treatment, Experience DBT day program, Intensive in-home therapy, and virtual DBT intensive outpatient program.
If you have questions about your child’s behavior or would like more information, please contact Hillside today.


  • Hillside Clinical Education & Referral Relations Manager - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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Current Version
May 9, 2024
Written By: Angie Hoke
Edited By: Angie Hoke
July 8, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke