Identifying your child’s behavior triggers
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Do your child’s outbursts seem to come out of nowhere? Watch or listen to this seven-minute episode of “What Now? A Parent’s Guide,” where psychologist Dr. Andrew Kahn explains how to find your child’s behavior triggers to prevent tantrums and meltdowns.
Learn which details to track to help you spot patterns, like time of day, what your child was doing just before the outburst, and who else was there.
(1:08) Why parents need to be detectives
(2:53) How to identify your child’s triggers
(5:27) What you can practice ahead of time
Wunder by Understood, a free app with exercises that can help you track your child’s behavior, look for patterns, and get personalized tips along the way.
From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns."
I'm Dr. Andrew Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist who has been working with kids, teens, and adults for more than 20 years. I'm also the father of a teenager, so I have a lot of personal and professional experience when it comes to parenting. I'll be your host.
Today's episode explains how to identify your child's triggers, why it matters, and what things to look for. This episode will focus on using your observation skills to be a detective and plan ahead to manage your child's needs and behaviors.
So a quick note: If you're looking for strategies to use in the moment, I recommend you go back and listen to the first five episodes of this season. Those episodes are important because they focus on in-the-moment strategies to help you manage a tantrum or outburst.
Today we're going to focus on planning ahead to help prevent these kinds of behaviors. And by prevent, I mean reduce the intensity or the frequency of the behavior — and hopefully get to the point of avoiding the behavior altogether.
OK, let's get started.
(1:08) Why parents need to be detectives
Let's talk about why parents need to be detectives.
You know, as parents, we're often simply reacting to our kids' behavior. But to prevent future outbursts, we need to look a bit deeper.
Triggers are the things that spark the behavior. Knowing your child's triggers is crucial in managing their behavior. We can't always perfectly predict what may come next, but watching for triggers can help a ton.
So, let me give you an example: I was working with a middle school-age child — I'm gonna refer to her as Tammy, OK? — who was having daily tantrums after school. Her behavior was a source of so much stress in the home, and finding her triggers was our number one goal.
You see, every day when Tammy arrived home from school, she and her mom had agreed that she would do her homework so that she could get a chance to do her screen time as early as possible. This mutual agreement between the parent and child was a really nice cooperative strategy, but somehow it just wasn't working for them.
When observing the afterschool patterns, I learned after only three days of observation — based on simple notes her mom had been taking at home — that the first item on Tammy's to-do list was math. Well, it turns out that math is her hardest subject, and is one that makes her feel, in her own words "stupid and clueless." Now, after a long day of school, the last thing she could tolerate was math.
So, once the trigger was identified, we were able to change the order of the homework tasks and got some simpler math practice tasks from her teacher that made the whole afterschool experience far less stressful.
Simple observation and finding the triggers was a game-changer for this child. And it can be a game-changer for your family, too.
Remember the goal: Find the triggers so you can try to prevent future outbursts.
(2:53) How to identify your child's triggers
Let's talk about how to identify your child's triggers.
Triggers are those things that typically happen right before the outburst or tantrum. They may not always be visible to you as a parent, and you may need to do some investigating — definitely not while they're upset — so you can see what may have come before.
Don't worry about being perfect, and you can expect that you'll make some mistakes and miss the mark at times. That's all part of the parenting process.
Keeping track of when, where, and who is present when your child has a tantrum or meltdown can be a big help in figuring out their triggers.
Some of our children's behaviors seem to "come out of nowhere," but keeping track of some key facts can help you find patterns and see that they're not random outbursts.
OK, truth bomb here: Maybe sometimes you just won't see the patterns right away, and that's completely OK. It just may take a little time and practice, so be patient with yourself — and with your child.
Jotting down a few key details can help you notice patterns and figure out what your child's triggers are. So, common trigger details to consider:
Time of day
The location: So, was it at home? At stores where there's a lot of people and noise?
Who else is around? Maybe a sibling, a friend, or other adults?
What was your child doing just before the tantrum or meltdown happened? Were they doing a fun activity they didn't want to end, like playing a video game? And were you asking them to start something that was, like, unfun, an activity like doing homework or chores?
Were there biological needs? Like your child being hungry, or tired, perhaps overstimulated from noise and stress?
Could it be emotional needs? Is your child feeling frustrated or really insecure when maybe being asked to do another thing that feels really hard for them?
Identifying triggers is all about looking at patterns and making hypotheses. That's a fancy word for guessing. You may not get it right every time. There's no crime in trying to figure things out. It's what we're trying to do as parents. Give yourself some grace to miss the mark and make mistakes. Your kids will really appreciate it. Well, eventually.
Kids can't always tell us what caused the outburst, so don't be upset at the "I don't knows" you're almost certain to hear.
You may be wondering what to do when you notice a pattern of common triggers. Please trust that noticing is the first step, and it is huge. Once you know them, you can work to minimize them, and when that's not possible, you can at the very least feel more prepared. Taking notes can be a big help.
Now remember the goal: Find the triggers so you can try to prevent future outbursts.
(5:27) What you can practice ahead of time
OK, so let's talk about what you can practice ahead of time.
To put today's learning into action, I want you to practice observing your child and noticing key details like what was happening just before your child's outburst. I want you to try to do this three times this week.
And as you're practicing this skill, I want you to deepen your knowledge by reading an article from Understood.org that explains what your child's anger might be telling you. We'll include a link in our show notes. This article can help you start to understand why your child is getting angry or upset so often. The article also includes suggestions on how to teach your child to manage their anger.
OK, folks, that's it for today's episode.
I hope you'll join me for the next episode on how to identify your own triggers and how knowing what triggers you as a parent can help you manage challenging situations with your child.
If there's one thing you take away from this episode, it's that finding your child's triggers is a key way to understand and help manage their behavior.
You've been listening to "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns," from the Understood Podcast Network.
If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.
Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.
What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also edited the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.
For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.
is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.