Signs & Symptoms

Anti-Social Behavior

Is your child kicking the cat?

Sometimes, children do not understand or seem to care how their behavior impacts those around them. Your child may act on any whim without considering consequences at all. It may be that your child expects the baby to follow the same rules or understand things the same way older children do. These unreasonable expectations of siblings could bring out extreme behavior in your child. Similarly, your child may not understand that animals think differently than people. It may be that your child gets frustrated with a dog that ripped up his toy or extremely upset when the cat licks his leg.

It is almost as if your child does not know that there is any perspective but his own. These behaviors are signs of a deficit in social perspective taking, and social perspective taking is a pre-requisite for empathy. If a child is unaware that others think and feel differently, he or she may not pause to think about the impact of his or her actions. Children who do not understand other’s perspectives may be showing signs of a developmental disability or emotional problem.

Other challenges with anti-social behavior may be purely self-motivated. These children do not have concern for other’s feelings and do not feel remorse after they have hurt someone else. As a parent or caregiver, it is important to keep everyone safe and to take these concerns very seriously. Antisocial behavior is a step past aggression because it is cruel in nature, not simply hitting because someone took a toy or pushing out of frustration. This behavior will appear more intense and more concerning than sibling rivalry or an occasional playground squabble.

What do challenges with Anti-Social Behavior look like?

  • Generally acting cruel to others?
  • Slapping his infant brother on the head?
  • Saying, “Let’s make him cry.”
  • Hitting others for seemingly no reason at all?
  • Behaving in a way that makes your dog cower when he enters the room?
  • Kicking or hitting your pets?
  • Trying to hurt animals like throwing sticks or rocks at swans in the park

Why is Anti-Social Behavior happening?

This problem could be a developmental disability, trauma or behavior. One of the issues below could be contributing to a child’s antisocial behavior: 

  • Perspective taking refers to understanding another’s point of view. For example, children who do not understand the impact their behavior has on others are demonstrating poor perspective taking. They may not notice a sibling’s small size or a small animal’s defenselessness. They may not realize their actions could hurt someone or realize that their actions appear cruel. For example, they may accidentally injure the pet hamster or guinea pig. These animals are small and fragile, and if your child accidentally harms them, he or she may not realize cause and effect, that is, the to and fro, the nature of a relationship. Children with autism often have significant challenges in this area. 
  • Impulsivity is acting without thinking. Children with developmental disabilities may also have issues with impulsivity. It could be that your child is ‘like a bull in a china shop.’ The question to ask then is whether he or she feel regretful when a sibling is unintentionally injured. If so, perhaps impulsivity is having an impact on behavior, and his actions are not planned. ADHD may be a diagnosis to consider in that case. 
  • Sensory perception refers to the idea that some children sense and perceive things differently and may be too rough or too loud, as a result. With sensory and perspective taking weaknesses, cruel behaviors may be unintentional.  However, sensory challenges provide no excuse for bad behavior or harm to others. If your child is struggling in terms of sensory regulation and behavior, treatment must include both help for the sensory need AND behavior therapy. Help from a highly trained clinician will be necessary to guide your child toward the pro-social behaviors he or she will need for success in life.
  • Attachment problems might be relevant. It also could be that your family has had a lot of stress or turmoil. Keep in mind that an older sibling who is constantly in trouble with the law or a younger child who is getting all of the attention may be overshadowing your child. These behaviors may be attention seeking. 
  • Recent loss or divorce may be the issue if your child is lashing out. Even if not particularly recent, grief can impact behavior. If your child lost a step-parent to divorce, a close friend to a cross-country move, or a grandma to old age, your child may show a sudden change in behavior. In this case, your child is likely to understand that the behavior is wrong and to feel a sense of guilt soon afterwards. Your job is to meet the child’s emotional need while still maintaining firm expectations for good behavior.

Parents and professionals are wise to consider Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, psychotherapy, and school consultation immediately if these behaviors persist. Bad habits can be replaced with good habits. Poor coping skills can be replaced with adaptive calming techniques. Good behavior can be reinforced. In so doing, these patterns can be reversed. Do not wait until poor behavior has become entrenched.

How can I manage Anti-Social Behavior at home?

These behaviors are extreme, and seeking professional help should be at the top of your list.

Seek help early and often, be persistent, and don’t give up. Your child’s school team and therapist can collaborate to teach your child new skills.

Be consistent in modeling kind and gentle behavior. Don’t spank your child because spanking models hitting. Always have some positive time with your child, despite misbehavior.

Do not provide attention for hitting or destroying things. Remove items that could harm and provide comfort. Often, the calm proximity of a loved one can reinforce coping behavior. Stay quiet and calm. Sit in a relaxed posture rather than standing in a defensive manner. Provide reinforcement for using gentle behavior and safe hands. If you have safety concerns for your child or your family, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.

Maintain safety and security. Make sure you keep sharp knives or anything else dangerous under lock and key. Remember to keep safety and the consistent non-contingent love and support for you child as first priority. Other activities, including schoolwork and athletics, might temporarily take a back burner as you work fervently to teach your child to maintain positive and safe behavior.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Anti-Social Behavior?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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