What is Causing This Behavior?

Community Member

If you haven't noticed by now, I usually write on topics that I have experienced firsthand. In my lifetime and especially as a parent I have witnessed seeing a whole lot of behaviors. And when I say behaviors I mean those behaviors which cause frustration and concern for you as a parent and hinder your child's ability to function and enjoy life. Behaviors which escalate to the point where your child may be in danger or pose a risk to others can be especially frightening. Some of these behaviors may include aggression as well as self injury.

One of the questions you may have when such behaviors crop up is, "What is causing this?" And then, "What do we do about it?"

I am sure you have all heard the story of the blind men and the elephant. Basically the story goes like this. A group of blind men touch a different part of an elephant to understand what an elephant is. When they describe these different parts to each other they argue over whose description is the most accurate. The moral of the story is that they don't really know what an elephant is because they are only focused on a part of the whole. And so it is with behavioral problems. Depending upon who you ask, the answers will greatly vary.

If you ask a behavioral specialist about causes for behavior they will undoubtedly tell you that something in the child's environment is the trigger. And by altering the environment you can thus, change behavior.

If you ask a psychologist or therapist about your child's behavior they will most likely look for emotional or cognitive dysfunction as the cause.

If you ask an occupational therapist about your child's behavior they may point out a sensory integration problem as the trigger for your child's actions.

If you ask your child's pediatrician or neurologist, they will investigate biological or medical reasons for your child's behaviors.

The problem is that your child is a unique combination of physiology, biology, and brain chemicals. Your child is also an emotional and cognitive being who lives within a family unit and is constantly influenced by environmental factors. You cannot dissect your child and say that there is always one cause for behavior. It can be very hard to sort out. But here is some help.

Answering these questions may help you to identify what sort of behavior problem your child has and what may be the primary cause.

  • Can you identify any consistent patterns of environmental triggers for the behavior? In a previous post I explained how to determine antecedents of behavior by using an ABC recording form.   Does the physical setting, reactions of others, or other conditions affect the frequency or severity of the behavior? Is your child's behavior a way of getting his needs met because he or she does not know the socially appropriate way?

If you can readily identify environmental triggers for your child's behavior then implementing a behavior management program is your first step towards changing the target behavior.

  • Have there been any great changes in your household over the past months? Has your child experienced any loss or trauma? Is your child being bullied at school? Do you see any great changes in your child's mood? Is your child tearful or irritable? Has your child developed new fears or phobias? Has there been a change in your child's sleeping or eating habits?

It is not uncommon for mood disorders such as depression   or anxiety   to be co-morbid conditions of ADHD. Acting out behaviors can sometimes be attributed to symptoms of a mood disorder. If you suspect this to be the case, a child psychologist or therapist can help.

  • Is your child affected by sensory stimuli such as loud noises, scratchy clothing, or strong smells? Does your child react with fear, aggression, or self injury in reaction to such stimuli? Does your child seek out certain experiences such as spinning, bumping into things, or even banging their head? Is your child calmed by certain sensory stimuli such as taking a bath, listening to music, or swinging on a swing? If you are answering yes to some of these questions you may want to investigate whether or not your child has a sensory processing disorder.   An occupational therapist can give your child a menu of sensory integration activities which will decrease dysfunctional behaviors.

  • Is your child approaching adolescence? Is your child's behavior consistent despite the setting or any changes to environment? Is your child's behavior program not working? Does your child have any underlying medical conditions such as a thyroid disorder or food allergy?

When your child is exhibiting a behavior problem it is routine to go with a behavior management program as the appropriate treatment. Yet some behaviors do not have an external cause and the usual behavior management techniques will be ineffective. If you suspect that your child's behavior is due to biology here are three things to investigate.

1. Get your child a good physical to make sure that there are no medical problems. A sick child with poor communication skills may act out in response.

2. Make sure that your child does not have any type of food sensitivity or allergy. In our case, my son was found to be sensitive to gluten and dairy. A change in diet may help some children to decrease aberrant behaviors.

3. Medication may help some children with their behavior and/or mood. Here is a list of ADHD medications which may help your child to function better at home and school.

The thing to remember is that a combination of approaches is usually best for decreasing target behaviors. It may easily be the case where your child's behavior is triggered by elements in the environment but he or she also has a food allergy which requires a special diet. Your child may also have a mood disorder or be dealing with emotional issues. There are many children who may have a sensory integration disorder on top of all this. It is wise to look at all the factors which may be influencing your child's behavior and to choose those methods most likely to help.

We will be talking more about behavior in the weeks to come and how you can best help your child. If there is any particular issue you would like us to address please let us know. We look forward to hearing from you.