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When an Adult is the Reason a Child Stumbles

We’ve talked a lot about the reasons a child might make “bad” choices. They’re either looking for attention, seeking access to something, avoiding something, or getting some kind of sensory input from their behavior (e.g. gaining a sensory release from shouting).


However, there are times when a kid makes a bad choice because of an external force pushing on them. They’re still using one of the four motivations, but the CAUSE of the behavior is different.

Instead of making a choice that came from their own minds, they’re making a choice based on how someone is treating them. They’re reacting instead of acting.

Have you ever seen an adult intentionally push a kid’s buttons? Or seen a teacher belittle a student? Or seen a parent berate a child in front of a store full of people?

These are times when a child’s behavior can get worse because of an adult’s actions. It doesn’t make the child’s behavior right, but it does make it understandable. In these situations, the adult’s behavior is called the “antecedent,” which is what happens directly before a child goes into negative behavior.

It happens in the school system, in the homes of families, in the local grocery store… just about anywhere you can see adults interacting with children.

When a teacher belittles a student, only ever recognizing them for the mistakes they make, the student starts to show signs of frustration. They stop making any positive movement whatsoever because what’s the point?

They become more disruptive, more defiant, and more difficult.

They’re still motivated by either attention, sensory, avoidance, or access, but their behavior was preceded by the teacher’s negative decision.

The same thing happens when a parent only ever yells at a child, degrades them, or treats them like an inconvenience. Kids often don’t understand why they’re frustrated in these situations, but their decline in behavior will tell it for them.

The thought process is (often unknowingly), “If you’re going to treat me like all I ever do is bad stuff, then that’s all I’m going to do. Why would I bother controlling my impulses?”

So maybe you’re wondering now about the occasional berating of a child. Not the adults who constantly pick on a kid who annoys them, but the adults who occasionally lose control and speak words or use body language that tells a child they’re a hindrance, an annoyance, a mess-up.

The adults are still being an antecedent to the child’s behavior in these situations.

I recently worked with an adult who was speaking down to a child when I stepped in to intervene. The adult was using a condescending voice tone, body language that made it look like the child disgusted him/her, and a facial expression that told me everything I needed to know about the adult’s feelings toward that child.

The adult was mad. Furious, actually. I might even have called it pointed disdain.

Not only could I tell, but the child could tell, as well.

When I walked in, the kid was frowning and kicking at something in the room. Every time the adult tried to speak, the kid shouted an objection about unfairness.

At that point, the two were so overrun with emotions toward one another that all I could do was separate them.

In this situation, the adult was the antecedent to the child’s behavior. As understandable as it was for the adult to be frustrated, he/she still made decisions that worsened the child’s behavior. If the adult had been able to control his/her emotions in this situation, I would’ve witnessed different posture, a different voice tone, and different words.

If he/she had shown more restraint in expressing what bothered him/her, the child’s behavior might’ve de-escalated more quickly. Or it might never have escalated in the first place.

This is not to say that I walk around judging adults, or that I think about all the mistakes they’re making in their interactions with children. Nor do I think that all childhood behavior is preceded by the negative actions of an adult.

In fact, most of the time, I think kids make decisions all on their own, attempting to figure out where their boundaries are and how they can get what they want in life.

But in some situations, particularly in cases where we interact with the same children over and over again, we have to consider our own behavior when evaluating the decisions a child is making. Are we making their behavior worse? How can we, instead, make it better? Were we the ones who started it in the first place?

Furthermore, we must ask, “Is this child behaving this way because he/she is missing a skill that I could help teach?”

As often as possible, we should avoid being the reason children stumble in their walk towards maturity. They will have plenty of peers to poke and prod at them throughout their years. They don’t need us sticking our boots out to trip them, too.

If you’re overwhelmed, take a break. If you can’t handle your emotions because the child you’re working with is just TOO MUCH, ask someone else to step in. Take a restroom break. Take a coffee break. Talk to your peers about how you can get help with that child.

Keep your boots where they belong.

It is our job, as parents and educators, to do whatever is necessary to give children as many opportunities to succeed as possible. We can’t expect the world to be better if we don’t, first, teach it how.

When an Adult is the Reason a Child Stumbles

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). When an Adult is the Reason a Child Stumbles. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 14 Jan 2018
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