Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Sorting out the meaning of misbehavior: The invisible culprit

Barbara Howard, MD

You have probably heard that determining the A(ntecedent)s, B(ehavior)s, and C(onsequence)s of behavior is basic to counseling about oppositionality or aggression. But sorting out the As is especially important to going beyond disciplining a misbehavior to building insight for both parents and children.

Antecedents are of two types: triggers such as actions, words, or feelings that happen just before the behavior, and “setting events” that can occur intermittently hours or even days beforehand and lower the threshold for a trigger to cause a child to act out. Lack of sleep, hunger, or fatigue are common setting events that parents recognize and take into account as in “Oh, he missed his nap” to excuse a tantrum in younger children, but is less often considered or excused in older children in whom self-regulation is expected. Often, behavioral specialists in schools are asked to observe a child to identify the triggers and create a “functional behavioral assessment” based on what is observed.

While a functional behavioral assessment requires observations, invisible antecedents to consider include internal thoughts and feelings (meaning). A child feeling shame from a failed math test the day before may be on edge, then, when called on, may uncharacteristically talk back. The child may regard punishment for this “justified” response as unfair, accelerating anger. Feelings of shame or humiliation for failing one’s own standards (or perceived expectations of others the child cares about) are major setups for eliciting defiance.

Even more subtle are meanings the child creates for situations and people, whether real or imagined. A child’s behavior has meaning for the child and the family and can be initiated or maintained by that meaning. For example, a child may “live down” to what the family thinks of him/her; if you think I am bad, I will act badly.

Children may feel guilty about some real or imagined offense, such as divorce or death they think may be their fault, and act up with the family to elicit punishment as payment. When children feel conflicted in a relationship, such as a late adolescent feeling dependent on their mother when their age expectation is independence, they may act up expecting to be ejected from home when they are unable to gather the courage to voluntarily leave. This acting out may also occur with nonconflicted adults, who are actually safer targets. For example, school is often a safer place to express anger through aggression or bullying than home, the real source of the feelings, because family is the “lifeboat” of food and shelter they dare not upset.

Conflicted relationships may be present in blended families, especially if the ex speaks negatively about the other parent. The child of divorce, feeling himself composed of parts of each parent, has diminished self-esteem and anger on behalf of that side being put down. Marital conflict may set children up to feel they have to take sides to angrily defend the parent of like-gender by being oppositional to the other.

Just as we ponder whether the color blue looks the same to someone else, neurologically based differences in perception may make a child misinterpret or act inflexibly or explode in situations that seem normal to adults. While people joke about “being a little OCD,” for some children the distress caused by a change in routine, a messy room, a delayed bus, or loud music is enough to disrupt their functioning and coping enough to explode. Such hypersensitivity can be part of autism or obsessive compulsive disorder or a subthreshold variant. Children vary by age and individually in their ability to understand language, especially sarcastic humor, and often misinterpret it as insulting, threatening, or scary and act accordingly. While most common in children with autism, those with a language learning disability, intellectual disability, or who have English as a second language, or are anxious or vigilant may also take sarcasm the wrong way. Anxious children also may react aggressively from a “hostile bias attribution” of expecting the worst from others.

Another possible meaning of a behavior is that it is being used by the child to manage their feelings. I have found it useful to remind depressed children and parents that it “feels better to be mad than sad” as a reason for irritability. Anger can also push away a person whose otherwise sympathetic approach might release a collapse into tears the child can’t tolerate or would find embarrassing.

The meaning of a child’s misbehavior also resides in the minds of the adults. In addition to all the categories of meaning just described, a parent may be reminded by the child of someone else for whom the adult has strong or conflicted feelings (“projection”) such as a now-hated ex, a sibling of whom the adult is jealous, or a bully from childhood, thus eliciting a reaction falsely triggered by that connection rather than the actual child. Asking parents whom the child “takes after” may elicit such parental projections based on appearance, behavior, or temperament. Helping them pick a feature of the child to focus on to differentiate him/her can serve as an anchor to remind them to control these reactions. Other useful questions to detect meanings of behavior might include asking the child “What’s up with that?” or “What did that make you think/feel?” We can ask parents “How is that for you?” or “What do you think things will be like in 10 years?” to determine despair, mood disorders, or family discord contributing to maladaptive responses possibly maintaining unwanted behaviors.

Throughout life, putting feelings into words is the main way meanings that are contributing to misbehaviors or parenting dysfunction can be uncovered and shifted. For this, the child or adult must feel emotionally safe to talk with a person who conveys curiosity rather than judgment. Helping families explain that divorce is not the child’s fault; admit they also make mistakes; rebuild conflicted relationships through play or talking; identify hypersensitivities or triggers to avoid; and express confidence that the child is a good person, still young, and sure to do better over time, are all things we pediatricians can do to help sort out the meanings of behaviors.

Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. E-mail her at pdnews@mdedge.com.