Acting Out: Is It a Behavior Problem or a Sensory Issue

Tantrum caused by Sensory Disorder

We’ve all had that moment at the store where we see a child on the floor crying, kicking and screaming as the mom is frantically working to get the child to stand up as her face turns red from embarrassment or anger. Naturally, our first thought is usually something along the lines of “what a spoiled and/or misbehaved kid.” Maybe you’ve seen this scenario from the mom’s point of view as you’ve tried every trick you can think of to get your child to stop rolling around the floor as others are giving you THE stare.

All children have temper tantrums and meltdowns as part of the normal development process, but what about that kid who has them on a regular basis? Are they acting out because they have a behavior problem? Maybe they haven’t had structure and routine in their daily life and have learned that throwing a fit will get them attention. Or maybe, their parents are at their wit’s end because they have tried all the tricks they know to stop the acting out behaviors but have been unsuccessful. They have finally given in and changed their daily routines and limited taking the child out because they don’t know when a meltdown is going to occur, and it is causing too much stress on the family in public situations.

Have you considered trying to find the underlying reason for the behavior? Behaviors, especially acting out, can happen for many reasons.

We’ve all heard of the “terrible twos”. Toddlerhood is a common time for children to act out. Many times, this behavior is an attempt at communication. Children at this age have many different experiences that they don’t have the words to describe yet. A child at this age may want to play with a preferred toy that is out of their reach or may be hungry or tired, but they don’t have the vocabulary to tell you what they want. Therefore, they will use behavior in an attempt to communicate. With typical development, as children increase their vocabulary and have the ability to verbally communicate, you see a decrease in tantrums.

For some children, acting out is truly a behavior problem. Maybe they have learned that throwing fits results in attention, even if it is negative attention. Using positive behavioral supports such as a sticker chart where the child can earn a small reward for positive behavior can be helpful for these children. Research shows that children need 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative reaction to make a behavioral change. That’s a lot of time that parents need to be watching and “catch them being good.”

You may be reading this thinking “I’ve tried those positive behavioral supports, but my child still has meltdowns on a regular basis.” Stop and take a deep breath… you are not a bad parent if those strategies did not work for your child.

Some kids act out because they have a problem with self-regulation due to sensory issues. There are a number of children whose behaviors are an attempt to get the sensory input that their body is craving. For example, the child that continues to climb on the furniture and jump off even though you’ve told them over and over to stop. Others may act out in an attempt to avoid those sensory experiences that are hard for their body. This could be the child that takes forever to get dressed in the morning because the clothes that are laid out may be so uncomfortable that they hurt to wear. Other children may have meltdowns when they are overwhelmed by the amount of sensory stimulation. To learn more about how the body processes sensory experiences click here.

Sometimes determining the why behind the behaviors can be difficult to do. Some kids don’t fit neatly into one category of behaviors. How can you decide the why of your child’s behaviors and what to do to help them? Occupational therapists have been trained to assist families in determining the underlying cause of the behaviors. Once that foundational question has been answered, they can help to set up a positive behavioral support system. For the sensory-based behaviors, they can work to incorporate strategies that will help to normalize some of the overreactive responses or build in needed sensory experiences throughout the child’s daily routine.

Parents, let us help you work to make daily routines easier by helping your child and teaching you the tools you need when these behaviors do occur. We want you to be able to function as a family and make a trip to the grocery store a pleasant experience for you!

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