Your Child is Not Misbehaving: How Stress Affects Behaviour


Monday February 28, 2022


All children exhibit undesirable behaviour at times, particularly when they are stressed, but deliberate misbehaviour is rare.  Paediatric nurse and child life specialist, Cindy Pilchuk, explores how a child’s brain responds to stress and emotional overwhelm, what their stress behaviour may be trying to say, and how parents and caregivers can help children cope better.


A woman faces a crying young girl, gazing at her with a concerned expression as the child site with her head in her hands. She is resting one comforting hand against the girl’s head, and the other on her opposite forearm.

“See a child differently, you see a different child”

Your child just grabbed a toy out of the hands of another child and refused to give it back.  You are on the phone, and your child will not stop interrupting and calling for you.  Your child just kicked another child in the shin because they were standing too close to him for too long.

What if I told you this is not misbehaving, and a child who misbehaves is actually very rare?  Would you believe me?  Guess what?  It’s true, and here is why.

Misbehaviour Vs Stress Behaviour

Behaviour is communication.

I am sure you have heard those words before, and they are true.  However, we need to understand what the behaviour is trying to tell us.  I often hear caregivers tell me that the child was tired, frustrated or angry – and yes this can be true. However, behaviour tells us so much more than that.

Behaviour tells us how the child is coping with stress. And therefore, our responses have to relate to decreasing the stress the child is experiencing.

So let’s dive deeper to understand the difference between misbehaviour and stress behaviour.

Misbehaviour

Misbehaviour is any undesirable or disruptive behaviour that is believed to be controllable by the child.

In this definition, behaviour is viewed through the lens of self-control, with a goal of compliance, where it is assumed the child is able to choose their own behaviour.  Anytime the child is not in control of their behaviour and emotions, or is not able to follow the guidelines imposed on them, they are considered to be misbehaving.

The most common response to misbehaviour is punishment: a time-out, taking away a toy or a privilege, etc.

BUT… what if…

Behaviour is Communication

Instead of viewing behaviour through the lens of compliance and self-control, what if we viewed behaviour through the lens of safety versus threat?  Where difficult or undesirable behaviour is a result of a child feeling unsafe or threatened, initiating the stress response system.

With this lens, we can begin to understand that behaviour has a cause, a reason to be there.  It is just a symptom of an underlying problem that needs to be supported and addressed.  Much like a fever is only a symptom telling us the body is trying to heal.

While treating the symptoms of a fever, we also need to find the illness or injury that caused it, and treat that too in order to restore the body back to a more “normal” or neutral state of health.  The same thing is true with behaviour.

Behaviour is communication, and undesirable behaviour is telling us that this child is dealing with more stress than their body and brain can handle.  By using this lens, we are able to look through the behaviour to uncover the source, the reason this behaviour is happening.  And from there, we can begin to support the child to problem solve and cope.

Stress Behaviour

Fundamental to stress behaviour is that the emotions and behaviours are reflexive, not chosen.

I want to repeat that: emotions and behaviour are REFLEXIVE, not chosen.  They are controlled by the part of the brain called the amygdala that is trying to figure out – am I safe?  Is this a threat?  The amygdala is also the part of the brain that processes emotions.

When a child experiences a stressor, a cascade of events take place in the brain, beginning in the amygdala, to initiate the stress response and allow the child to react to the threat.  The stress response is the alarm system within our brain.  Behaviours that occur while the stress response is triggered are called stress behaviours.

A key point here is that when the stress response is triggered, the functions of the pre-frontal cortex gets put on hold as the body prepares for flight, fight, or freeze.  The pre-frontal cortex is the thinking and problem solving part of the brain that helps us to make decisions.

Therefore, during this time when we are in the stress response, behaviour is not a choice we can make.  We react to survive the threat.

Stress behaviour occurs most often when we have low energy, but are experiencing high tension.  Stress behaviour in children can exhibit as:

  • easily frustrated
  • irritable
  • hyperactive
  • over-reaction to minor problems
  • difficulty concentrating
  • physical pain
  • difficulty ignoring distractions
  • not understanding information/what people are saying doesn’t make sense

A father and his young son sit close to one another on a couch. The father’s arm is wrapped around the small boy, and he is gazing down at him attentively.

Understanding Stress

A common definition of stress is “an imbalance between the ability and capacity to cope and the demands placed on that person”.  Other researchers believe that stress is anything that requires a great amount of energy to bring us back to our body’s baseline.  Let’s just pause for a moment and think about that definition.

In that definition, we are asked to focus on the amount of energy it takes to deal with a stressor – remember stress behaviour occurs most often during low energy, high tension.  In order to cope effectively, what is needed most here is rest and recovery.

Modern books and parenting theories talk about stress in terms of psycho-social stress.  This stress is related to keeping up with those around you.  For children, this means keeping up with school grades, sports and other extra-curricular activities, and the need to fit in.

This popular definition of stress interprets stressors as things that are happening to you only within the social and emotional domains.  This definition, although popular, is narrow minded.

Domains of Stress

Stress that uses up our energy can occur in many different domains. Let’s take a look at the different domains of stress.

  • Biological – not enough exercise, eating food that is unhealthy, heartrate, breathing, sleep.
  • Emotional – strong emotions, both positive (over–excited) and negative (anger, fear).
  • Cognitive – difficulty processing certain kinds of information, overstimulation.
  • Social – difficulty picking up on social cues, the need to belong, feelings of loneliness or isolation.
  • Pro-social – Difficulty coping with other peoples’ stress, the ability to see the needs of others.
  • Environmental – environmental factors that can cause stress, lights, sounds, speed of movement, temperature.

Each of these domains has its own individual and unique stressors, but they are all interlocked in such a way that stress in any one domain can exacerbate stress-reactivity in another. When a person is caught in a stress-cycle, stressors have a multiplying effect on each other. This can lead to problems in behaviour, mood, attention, and health.

I think it is of the utmost importance to take a moment to consider and examine our expectations for our children within these domains.  Are our expectations appropriate for our child’s age and development?  Do our children even have the skills needed to fill our expectations?  Let’s go back to our example behaviours…

Did your child interrupt your phone call because they didn’t have the skills to deal with feeling isolated or separated from you?

Your child so excited to play with the other child’s toy, but did they understand that grabbing it from the child would make that child feel sad?  Does your child have the communication skills to ask for a turn with that toy?

Did your child kick the other child because they felt threatened by the child standing too close, and kicking was for protection?  Were they hot and irritated from the summer heat, or even hungry?

And for all of these examples – Does your child need rest from stress?  Does your child know how to return back to calm?

Repeated Activation of the Stress Response System

Many people believe that a child undergoing medical treatment for retinoblastoma is too young to have long term effects.  Actually, the opposite is true.  Remember, children are experiential, they feel. Adults are cognitive, we interpret things and try to understand them in a logical way.  A child of any age involved in a traumatic medical treatment can experience the resulting stress within any of the domains, without a cognitive understanding of it.

Let’s take a closer look at how medical trauma at an early age can affect a child’s brain development, and how their response to stress may be different from a child who has not had the same experiences.

Cortisol is a hormone secreted during the stress response.  High cortisol levels help signal to the brain and body that the stress is not finished yet, and energy is still needed to deal with that stress.

With chronic stress, cortisol is released for longer periods of time.  This can have long-term effects on gene expression in the brain circuits involved in managing stress responsiveness, emotion, and memory.

Chronic stress and trauma actually re-wire a person’s brain.  When that trauma occurs in the early stages of life, when brain development is at its peak, repeated stress will create new and strong pathways within the brain.

MRI studies have shown that a brain under extreme stress has a larger amygdala.  Therefore, situations (even non-threatening ones) are always interpreted through a lens of fear and threat.  This will result in behaviour that is defensive and potentially aggressive, and a child whose energy stores are depleted.

Your responses to your child’s behaviour always need to go back to safety and security – does my child feel safe and secure?

Dr. Shanker is an amazing resource for how children experience and cope with stress, and how to develop self-regulation.  This helpful PDF guide gives examples of stress behaviours in five different domains of self-regulation.  The MEHRIT Centre website contains many more resources for parents, educators, community leaders and all.

A Parenting Strategy

Helping a child manage their stress behaviour involves

  1. Taking a moment to be calm when you respond.
  2. Identifying causes of the stress behaviour, and solutions for them.
  3. Restoring calm and helping your child understand what calm means.
  4. Help your child build healthful coping strategies to manage their stress.

1. Pause

When the undesirable behaviour is occurring, before you do anything – PAUSE.  Take a moment before you react to a child’s undesirable behaviour.  Pausing will help you to maintain a level of calm within yourself, and allow you to begin to look at and understand what this behaviour is trying to tell you.

2. Identify Stressors and Solutions

Figure out what the stressor(s) is and look at ways to reduce the stress.  For example, what is the primary domain of stress being affected, does the child need some skill development?

3. Restore Calm

Help your child to feel calm.  In the moment when a stressful event is taking place, this may require you to be very involved and support the child’s ability to reach a calm state.  For example – taking deep breaths together.

However, the best time to teach your child what calm feels like is when you are not in the moment, and your child is not feeling stressed out.  This is important so your child knows and understands (physically, cognitively, emotionally) what they are trying to come back to, what is baseline.

I worked with a child who was very good at taking a deep breath during a stressful event, but his shoulders were touching his ears, his hands in tight fists, his legs as stiff as two tree trunks and he would shout out loud “I AM CALM!  I TOOK A DEEP BREATH!”  This was NOT calm and it was important when the stress event was finished to go back and talk about what calm is.

When speaking with your child about what calm feels like, you want to talk about, and bring awareness to, the experience of calm within each domain.

Biological: what is happening in the body – slower heartbeat, rhythmic breathing, no muscle tension.

Emotional: you feel SAFE, you feel loved.

Social: you feel accepted, and connected.

Prosocial: you are able to experience empathy for others.

Cognitive: you can think logically and problem solve.

Environmental: you are aware of the noises, sights and movements around you, but you are not bothered by them.

This is CALM.

4. Support Healthy Coping

Help your child build healthful coping strategies that enable them to come back to calm when they begin to feel stress.  This can include mindfulness techniques (including mindful breathing), body awareness, positive ways to let go of high energy, and building of communication skills.

Parents can support the child in coping through the language they use.  In your language, include the Do’s.  For example:

Instead of “don’t grab that toy” –

Say “wow you are excited to play with that toy, please do use your words to say that you want a turn next”.

Instead of “don’t interrupt” –

Say “Do sit quietly with me while I am on the phone, or bring your toys close by”.

Instead of “don’t kick” –

Say “Please do use your words, walk away or ask an adult for help if you feel threatened by someone standing too close to you”.

Please note: points 2, 3 and 4 can occur in any order, or even all at the same time.

The Family Meeting

A great way to connect with your child(ren) is by having a weekly family meeting.  This is a time when the family is priority, and it is a positive and safe space for each member of the family to share their feelings.  On the agenda:

1. Compliments

Begin with compliments and appreciations.  Each member of the family says something positive about each member of the family.  For example:

  • “I really liked it when you…”
  • “I am really thankful that you…”
  • “You did a great job when…”

2. Discuss the Week Ahead

Next review the events happening that week, so everyone is aware of the plan and expectations for the week ahead.  You can trouble shoot here by planning ahead if there are busy days.  For example, “on Monday we have a lot going on, let’s order a pizza for dinner and use paper plates”.

3. Check In

Check In is a time that allows your child to express themselves and tell you how they are feeling, and what is happening in their world.  This is also a great opportunity for problem solving and skill building.

4. Fun Family Activity

In my family, each week we rotate – one family member is responsible to lead the family activity, giving each of us a turn to be a leader and a participant.  We also take turns leading a mindfulness activity as part of our skill building.

Safety First

Family meetings are meant to be a safe and supportive space.  Sometimes it takes a little time to reach a place where everyone feels comfortable with sharing their feelings, especially during the check in.  Do not worry if not every member of the family is ready for a check in.  Focus on building safety first, and remember to have fun!

Dr. Gordon Neufeld is an advocate for the parent–child relationship, and a leader in attachment theory.  This is one of my favourite resources on the importance and power of rest for a child through connection and relationship with parents. 

The Importance of Rest

All people need rest.  Rest is a state of deep relaxation and calm.  When we are resting and sleeping, our bodies can physically grow and heal.  During rest and sleep, our brains are also working very hard to sort through all the information from the day.  Memories are consolidated, learning is stored, and problem solving pathways are created.  Most importantly, recovery takes place during rest, restoring energy.

Children will find rest when they know that love from their parent/caregiver is unconditional and dependable, and this occurs through secure attachment in the relationship.

Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

There is very little evidence supporting the use of reward and punishment to increase motivation and performance.  Both reward and punishment are extrinsic motivators that may change behaviour temporarily and get you through a moment in time.  But they do not address the underlying root causes or lack of skill that influence a child’s behaviour long term.

When looking at behaviour through the lens of safety vs. threat, it is rare for a child to misbehave.  If most undesirable behaviour is rooted in stress, our response should not be to punish a child for feeling stressed out, but to support them in healthy coping.

If Undesirable Behaviour Happens in School/Child Care

If undesirable behaviour occurs during the school day and is reported to you, your role is to ensure that your child feels safe and secure.  Ask your child simply for their version of the story and ensure that they are ok, providing comfort as necessary.

If the incident has already been dealt with at school, leave it there.  If appropriate, you can discuss coping strategies collaboratively with your child that they can use next time they feel stressed out at school/child care.  Follow up with the school as appropriate to let them know your child’s version of events, and the coping strategies they are going to use at school.

Final Thoughts and Take Aways

Undesirable behaviour is not about you as a parent or caregiver.  When you look at it through the lens of safety vs. threat, you can see that behaviour is related to neurobiological processes taking place in your child’s brain.  It becomes a science.  When you understand this, you can respond appropriately, meeting your child’s needs and building a strong connection in your relationship.

Many people, especially in the education system, still view behaviour with the antiquated belief that children have the ability to self-control.  If others judge your approach, or make you feel like you are doing something wrong, DO NOT LISTEN!

Key Take Aways

  1. Stress behaviour is reflexive, not chosen

We need to uncover the cause of stress – what is the primary domain in which the stress is occurring (biological, emotional, cognitive, social, prosocial, or environmental)?

  1. Children develop feelings of safety through relationship

 Help your child to find calm, rest and recovery.

And finally, help them build healthful coping strategies that they can use to deal with stressful events.

Further Reading Resources from WE C Hope

Breathing for Wellness

For further information on the stress response, and how breathing is a great strategy for coping with stress.

Help Your Child Cope with Big Emotions

Offers an array of strategies to help your child understand their big emotions.

A little girl and mother hugging each other with their eyes closed.

About the Author

Cindy Pilchuk is first and foremost a mother to three perfectly wonderful, imperfect children who are her inspiration and hope.  After that, she is a Registered Nurse and Certified Child Life Specialist. She holds a Master’s of Science degree in Child Life and Pediatric Psychosocial Care.

Cindy has focused her entire 23 year career thus far supporting children and families to cope with stress.  She has a particular interest in early brain development and attachment, and how stress and trauma effects early brain development and behaviour.  For the past 13 years, she has worked as a public health nurse in the Child Health and Development division at Toronto Public Health.

Cindy Pilchuk
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