What’s Behind My Child’s Out-of-Control Behavior? When in Doubt, Search for the ABC’s

When young children display out-of-control behaviors, tantrums, and/or meltdowns, parents often are quick to think that these are intentional or manipulative and may describe their child as “willful” “stubborn” or “spoiled.” This way of thinking can lead to power struggles with your child and behaviors may get worse before they settle. More importantly, the parent-child relationship is often stressed and over-time can create distance, mistrust, and even amplify negative behaviors if the child feels misunderstood. When a child acts out, parents understandably react and often it is in the form of implementing punitive measures such as “time-outs”, removal of privileges, or yelling battles as parents have reached their threshold of tolerance and frustration with their child’s noncompliance and behavioral outbursts. 

When these approaches do not work and negative behaviors are not going away but instead keep occurring, you realize parenting is hard. You may feel defeated with your genuine attempts to enforce set rules so your child learns right from wrong and feel like your good efforts to apply traditional discipline tactics (whether in the form of consequences/discipline or rewards) are falling short. If you are experiencing this struggle on a regular basis, it is time to try a new approach and start reflecting on why this is happening. This leads to the search for the ABCs which allows us to understand the circumstances surrounding a behavior. 

Antecedent: What triggered the behavior or what happened right before the behavior? Things to consider include:

  • Sensory stimulation 
  • Internal/biological triggers
  • Timing of the situation
  • Task difficulty
  • Unmet wishes for attention

Behavior: What did the child do or say in the situation that was problematic? 

  • Use concrete terms (e.g., “my child said….” when…..” or  “my child yelled/threw things…” when….”). 

Consequence: What happened after the behavior occurred? This doesn’t necessarily mean punishment. Rather consider if the child’s behavior resulted in:

  • Avoiding a situation
  • Self-soothing
  • Getting others’ attention
  • Getting some desired object

Getting the ABCs of your child’s behavior takes effort and may require keeping a “diary”  or “log” to create a written record of observations so you can later look back for patterns that reveal what may be causing the re-occurring problem behavior your child is exhibiting. You can also seek out the support of a mental health professional who specializes in child behavioral management and assist in creating a customized “prevention plan” based on your individual child’s ABCs. 

If these behaviors are occurring at school, a “Functional Behavioral Assessment” will likely be conducted. In general, this approach to understanding your child’s reactions and behaviors focuses on the “root” or underlying triggers, which when understood allows for empathy and different outlook and approaches to de-escalating behaviors (that may not warrant discipline) and as a result fosters a healthier parent-child relationship and understanding of what your child is able to tolerate/handle so you can meet his/her needs and teach skills to deal with the triggers that may not be avoidable.  

This approach is found in greater detail and best explained in the book, No More Meltdowns, Positive strategies for managing and preventing out-of-control behavior by Jed Baker, Ph.D.



Maria Kanakos, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist