Why Your Child Acts That Way

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on December 06, 2012
4 min read

Just when you think your child is capable of acting almost "adult," or at least more mature than they used to be, they do something that makes you wonder what they're thinking.

They stretch the truth, pretend they don’t hear you, or explode into tears seemingly over nothing. They tease and babble like they were still babies. Why? There are usually simple explanations and ways to head off these habits.

The lies may be little ("Yes, I made my bed!") to bigger ("No, I didn't hit my sister.") but you know that what you're hearing is far from the truth.

Why they do it: Because they fear the punishment; or because they have gotten away with it before and hope they can again; or because they don't want to disappoint you, says Michele Borba, PhD, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

This is good-natured ribbing of friends, siblings, and other family members -- not bullying.

Why they do it: Because it's fun and can make the teaser feel powerful, says Dawn Huebner, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Exeter, N.H., and the creator of the What-to-Do Guides for Kids series.

What to do about it: Help your child know when they're going too far and how to be sensitive to other people's feelings.

When your child teases someone who doesn't like it, take her aside and ask her how her comments are making the other person feel. "Boost their sensitivity skills by encouraging her to look at the other child's reactions and her facial expressions," Borba says.

Of course, if the teasing is clearly going too far, you should step in to make sure the kids are safe. Then take them aside to talk about what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

Why they do it: For laughs, to feel powerful, and to get a reaction out of you, Huebner says.

What to do: Talk to children about when and how it's OK to play jokes and pranks, and how to tell if it goes too far.

Is the prank harmless or mean-spirited? Does it make someone laugh or distress them? Can your child tell the difference?

"Kids sometimes have a stronger sense of humor than they do a sense of consequences, so you might need to help them see how the other person may not be laughing," Borba says.

Why they do it: To get attention or because they're still learning how to handle their emotions. Some kids may be acting. Others "really feel things deeply, intensely. In the moment, they are devastated," Huebner says.

What to do: Don't reward it with your attention. Instead, talk about it and about other ways to handle emotions like anger, jealousy, or frustration. Be empathetic. "In the moment, telling her, ‘Hey, it's no big deal,' feels to her like you're minimizing the issue. Instead, say that you understand how hard the situation is, or that you see how frustrated she is."

Why they do it: To get your attention, or to retreat from the expectations that come with their actual age. "If kids are feeling overwhelmed by a demand or a certain task, they might turn to baby talk or start saying ‘I can't,'" Huebner says. Some children also do this because of a major change or a trauma, Borba says.

What to do: Ask them to use their "regular" voice, Huebner says. It's usually a passing phase, so don't give it too much attention.

Why they do it: They may be so involved in whatever they're doing that they honestly don't hear you, Huebner says. Or they may actively be tuning you out. That may not just be because they don't like what you're saying. It may be that they think you talk too much. "When we are making tons of commands, over and over, some kids can actually hear less," Borba says.

What to do: Get their attention before you speak. "Go near your child, touch their shoulder, so that you seize their attention," Huebner says. Then, once you're done talking, ask the child to repeat back what you said. Saying less, but more strategically, may help them heed you.

Why they do it: They may not yet know the proper cues for conversation and how to wait their turn to talk. Or they may have been getting away with it, Borba says.

What to do: Explain that when someone is talking, we wait for the other person to pause or finish before jumping in. "If children aren't sure if the other person is finished, it's OK to say, 'Excuse me,' and then wait to be recognized," Huebner says. Also, make sure you don't interrupt people, since you are your child's most powerful role model.

Why they do it: Children may not know how to choose what might be of interest to talk about. Or the timing might be off. They may need time to unwind or re-energize before talking, Huebner says.

What to do: Ask engaging questions at the right time. Notice when your child is most talkative. Is it after school? Later on?Then ask specific questions like "What did you make in art?" or "Tell me something that made you feel proud today." Avoid questions that are too vague or those that will get a "yes" or "no" answer.

Why they do it: They want to avoid a hard or unpleasant task. Or they may be more interested in something fun. Or they honestly don't realize how much time they need for a task.

What to do: Start routines that discourage procrastinating: Getting dressed comes before breakfast, homework gets done before playtime or electronics, toys get picked up before nighttime reading, etc.