3 Key Elements to Understanding Behavior Problems

At first glance, recurring behavior problems often appear to happen without rhyme or reason. Despite appearing to be random, behaviors always have a function or purpose. Uncovering that specific purpose can sometimes be challenging.  However, identifying the specific reason or “function” for a behavior is the key to developing an effective strategy to address it.

Taking the time to record patterns is an extremely helpful tool to find the underlying function, or reason, behind a child or teen’s behavior problems.  In my work with parents, one of the first tasks that I often give parents is to start recording behavioral patterns to examine three key elements:

1)   What happened before? Consider the time, day of the week, and the setting events associated with the behavior (e.g., did your child have a good night’s sleep, eat lunch that day, etc.). Thinking about both your child experience as well as your own is key (e.g., did you have a good night’s sleep, eat lunch that day, etc.). The goal is to paint a picture of the environment and factors surrounding the behavior problem.

2)   What happened in the moment? Think about what was specifically said or happened at the time of the behavioral concern. Having a “meltdown” is not enough information to develop our reason for the behavior problem.  We have to think about what the behavior “looked like” specifically.


3)   What happened after? Think about both your child’s response and your own reaction after the incident.  This includes disciplinary actions, emotional reactions, and behavioral responses.  Considering what happened a bit later after the incident when everyone was calm again can also be helpful in developing a plan of how to manage future incidents.

The goal in this process is to step back, take a deep breath and try to understand what happened and why.  This is a non-judgmental process.  We are simply looking for patterns to help create possible solutions.  Taking advantage of the old saying “hindsight is 20/20” helps to reveal those patterns associated with behavior problems.  By developing a clear working hypothesis to explain the function of a behavior, we can create a specific and strategic plan to intervene. 

This process often takes a lot of patience and several attempts. Sometimes the underlying reason is complex and several strategies need to be attempted before a solution can be found.  At other times, we uncover significant red flags that indicate mental health concerns in a child or teen that need to be addressed in individual therapy.  Doing this on your own can be challenging for more complex behaviors and situations. If you find it is more than you can manage on your own and you would like support in the process, I’m here to help.  Contact me at 608-216-8145 or by email at drlizgaebler@capitalcitypsychology.com to schedule a time to connect.