The Ultimate Guide to Aggressive, Lying, Whining, and Defiant Behaviours in Children

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
October 24, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Imagine this: Your child starts to whine as soon as you sit to feed your baby. Or, your child slams the door to their room after you’ve repeatedly asked them not to. Or maybe your child starts hitting their sibling after a busy day out. Maybe they even lie about what they’ve done.

For many parents, these behaviours can trigger thoughts like:

“Why can’t they just behave?!”

“This behaviour is disrespectful!”

“How do I make this bad behaviour stop?”

If you’ve been taught that behaviour determines whether a child is good or bad, it makes sense that whining, hitting, lying, biting, screaming, and other challenging behaviours would trigger thoughts like this. 

However, a child who engages in these behaviours isn’t bad. Their behaviour is communicating a need! You can end challenging behaviour and create long-lasting change by understanding more about your child’s needs.

Use SEATS to help you understand why your child is engaging in challenging behaviour, such as hitting, kicking, biting, lying, whining, running away, and more. Getting curious about your child’s behaviour is the first step to effectively responding and ending these behaviours.

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A happy family of four enjoying time together at an amusement park. The photo captures a close-up of a smiling woman on the left and a beaming man on the right, both facing each other. They are looking lovingly at their two young sons, who are nestled between them. The older boy is grinning broadly and the younger one has a cheeky smile. The background is softly focused, with lights from carnival rides subtly illuminating the scene.

How to Create Long-lasting Change 

When a child struggles with hitting, lying, or whining,  one of the most powerful ways to approach these behaviours is to get curious. 

Instead of responding to their behaviour with short-term solutions like punishment, threats, or yelling, getting curious allows you to come up with a solution that solves the root cause of the behaviour – the need the behaviour is trying to meet. This is what creates long-term change.

Most behaviours are communicating one or more of the following needs: 

  • Sensory 
  • Escaping 
  • Attention/Connection
  • accessing a Tangible Item or Activity 
  • Stability

A helpful way to remember the needs your child might be trying to communicate is by using the acronym SEATS. 

Related Post: 3 Parenting Tools Every Parent Should Use: Discipline, Consequences, and Boundaries

Need #1: Sensory 

Sensory needs refer to an individual’s requirement for sensory input to regulate emotions and improve their functioning. Sensory needs rely on input from our sensory system, which includes our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Sensory needs can vary from person to person, and some individuals may have heightened or reduced sensitivity to certain sensory experiences.

Sensory-Seeking Behaviours 

Sensory-seeking behaviours help your child meet a need for sensory stimulation. These behaviours can be a sign that your child’s body is craving more sensory input. To help you determine if your child’s behaviour is sensory-seeking related, ask yourself: 

  • Does the behaviour happen after my child’s been sitting for long periods?
  • Does the behaviour happen when my child is indoors for long periods of time?
  • Does this behaviour happen after using screens? 

Sometimes, sensory-seeking kids whine when they crave more sensory input. This can look like: 

  • Begging you to let them go on the rides at the fair. 
  • Pleading with you to take them to the park, even when it’s raining.
  • Getting restless in the car and/or repeatedly asking, “Are we there yet?”

Sometimes, whining can be a child’s way of telling you that sitting still, waiting in line, being quiet or staying indoors feels physically uncomfortable for their bodies. 

Aggressive behaviours can also be a sign of your child seeking sensory input: 

  • Hitting, pushing, shoving, or biting other kids. 
  • Slamming doors or cupboards.
  • Kicking or throwing toys.

Whether your child is two years old or 12, sensory-seeking kids often regulate their nervous system using movements. When kids don’t have ample opportunities to engage in these regulating movements, it can translate into less effective behaviours. 

Lying can also be a sign that a child is seeking more sensory input. For example, a child with sensory-seeking needs might tell their parents that they don’t have any homework to do, so they can play outside with their friends after school. Lying serves to provide them with the opportunities to access the sensory input their bodies are craving. 

Related Post: The Truth About Lying: Why Your Child Lies and How to Foster Honesty

Sensory-Avoiding Behaviours 

Sensory-avoiding behaviours are typically triggered by overstimulation. These behaviours are a sign that your child is receiving too much sensory input and needs relief. 

To help you determine if the behaviour is sensory avoiding, ask yourself: 

  • Does the behaviour happen when my child is hungry, tired, or in pain? 
  • Does the behaviour happen before meals, while fighting a cold, or teething?  
  • Does the behaviour happen in cluttered, busy, noisy, or brightly lit environments – like shopping malls or grocery stores?

When a child is showing aggressive behaviours, like hitting, biting, throwing, or kicking, a helpful place to start getting curious is with your child’s sensory experiences and needs. 

Example: An 8-year-old child slams their bedroom door when they get home from school.

Option 1: This child is sensory-seeking, and slamming the door is a signal that their bodies are seeking MORE sensory input to regulate after a long day of sitting on the bus and at their desk.

Option 2: This child is sensory-avoidant, and slamming the door is a signal that they are overstimulated. This behaviour is a signal that their bodies need LESS sensory input to regulate after a long day on a noisy bus and in a busy classroom.

If your child is hitting, you can get curious to help them proactively meet their unique sensory needs. Do they need more sensory input? Are they overwhelmed by the sensory input in their environment? Hitting can be a sign that a child is craving more input, or it can signal that your little one is overstimulated. 

Lying can also serve to meet a sensory need for a sensory-avoiding child. For example, when a sensory-avoiding child is asked by their neighbour to play outside after school, they might lie and say they can’t play because they have homework to do – lying gets them the sensory break they need. 

As you can see, getting curious about your child’s behaviour is key. Curiosity can help shift how we see and respond to behaviour so we can help our children meet their needs before they resort to challenging behaviour like lying, biting, throwing, biting, or more to get their needs met!

Related Post:How to Stop Your Child From Hitting: A Sensory Approach

Need #2: Escape

Your child’s behaviour can signal a need to escape an undesired activity or interaction. This is commonly seen when children feel bored, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or frightened. 

For example, imagine a preschooler coming out of their room at night to find their parents. They repeatedly defy their parents’ rule about having to stay in bed. They lie about needing to go potty. On the surface, this behaviour might look like:

  • An attempt to stay up later.
  • Blatant disrespect.
  • Manipulation. 

However, when we look at the behaviour on a deeper level, it can be a sign that the preschooler is struggling to sit with a really big feeling – like fear of the dark. Leaving their room helps solve their need to escape and go somewhere that will make them feel safe. Lying about having potty serves to get them closer to you. 

Other common escaping behaviours for children are: 

  • Whining.
  • Running away from you. 
  • Covering their eyes or ears. 
  • Engaging in behaviours they know will get them removed from the environment (e.g. screaming in the store).
  • Refusing to answer a question or saying “NO!”
  • Lying about having to go to the bathroom.

A child showing any of these behaviours or who continues to act out no matter how often they are punished may be struggling to communicate their need to escape. By getting curious and discovering their need, you can create solutions that help your child even before the behaviour happens!

Need #3: Attention/Connection

Caregivers often view certain behaviours as attention-seeking and label this as a negative reflection of the child. However, these behaviours are not bad, wrong, manipulative or negative; they’re normal, healthy and vital to survival! 

Children’s brains are wired for closeness and connection with you, so to get their need for connection met, they often have to get your attention. They’ll do whatever they can to ensure you notice them; you may begin seeing challenging behaviours if they don’t know how to do this helpfully and effectively. So, instead of labelling these behaviours as “attention-seeking” behaviour, it can help to shift the language and refer to these behaviours as “connection seeking.”

If your child is struggling with connection-seeking behaviours, it can help to tune into the relationship. Why might your child be seeking more connection with you? 

Behaving Aggressively to Meet a Connection Need

Sometimes, kids behave aggressively because they want to get your attention – their behaviour serves to bring you closer to them. 

For example, toddlers often hit their siblings, throw food off of their high chairs, and throw their toys if they know it gets a reaction from you. 

The same is true for preschoolers. They might kick, spit, bite, push, or scream to see what happens – these behaviours can be a child’s way of being seen. 

For school-aged kids, this can look like shouting, “I HATE YOU!” or screaming a swear word. These types of aggressive behaviours can be a child’s attempt to be heard. 

Knowing this, another way to look at connection-seeking behaviours is like this: 

  • When I hit my baby sister, you finally spend time with me. 
  • When I throw my toys, you notice me. 
  • When I swear, I get your attention – you hear me. 

It can really help to shift your perspective to view these behaviours as a child’s way of telling you that they’re seeking connection. 

Lying to Meet a Connection Need

Kids of all ages can use lying as a way of meeting their need for closeness, connection, and attention from their caregivers. 

Example 1: 10-year-old Keisha lies and tells her parents she’s sick, so she can stay home from school. She knows that when she’s sick, one of her parents has to stay home from work. This means she gets to have her mom or her dad all to herself for an entire day while her siblings are at school. 

Example 2: 7-year-old Wesley lies and tells his dad he cleaned his room. He knows that once his room is clean, he gets to go run errands with his dad. He loves sitting with him in the truck, listening to music and being silly together. 

This is why we want to avoid “catching” kids in a lie and giving the behaviour a big reaction. Big reactions can reinforce these behaviours because your child is getting the need for attention met. 

Instead, try getting curious about the behaviour. This can be as simple as asking them: 

“On the one hand, you told me you couldn’t go to school because you were feeling sick, while on the other hand, you’re saying you want to go to your hockey game tonight. Can you help me understand how both of these things can be true?”

“Hmm. I’m hearing you say your room is clean, but you’ve only been in there for five minutes, and it usually takes you half an hour. I wonder if you’re telling me it’s clean because you’re excited to go for a drive together, does that sound true?”

The most important thing we can do when we suspect a child is lying to connect with us is to signal through our language, tone of voice and posture that they won’t get in trouble for truth-telling. 

Related Post:3 Strategies for Supporting Attention-Seeking Behaviour

Need #4: Accessing a Tangible Item or Activity

There may be situations where your child’s behaviour is a result of an attempt to access a tangible item. When a child wants something they can’t have, it can result in big behaviours like kicking, hitting, whining, screaming and swearing. 

If you’re wondering if your child’s behaviour is the result of seeking a tangible item, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Does the behaviour happen when they can’t have something they want?
  • Does the behaviour happen when they see a sibling with something they want?
  • Does the behaviour happen when you tell your child to take turns with a toy or that it’s time to go?

There may be times when this behaviour is less about a tangible item and more about an activity (like going to the park). Either way, a child might have no other way of communicating their desire other than to kick their legs, scream or hit.

Lying is also a behaviour that can serve to help a child access a tangible item or activity. For example, your child might lie to you and say they didn’t have a cookie yet, even though they did – lying to you is one tool they have to meet the need for accessing an item. 

When we get curious about their behaviour, we can notice patterns or triggers. For example, you might notice that your preschooler whines about everything as soon as you start feeding your baby. Now that you’ve noticed the pattern, you can start solving this behaviour by meeting their need in advance, such as giving your preschooler a snack before you start to feed your baby.  

Related Post: How to Tackle the Whining Phase

Need #5: Stability 

Children of all ages thrive in predictable environments. That means when the environment isn’t predictable, they can struggle to behave effectively. 

Sometimes, a child’s behaviour can indicate a desire or need for stability during a period of change or a life transition. Your child may start to whine more, lie or behave aggressively when their life feels unstable. 

Some kids start to lie more when they’re experiencing a big life transition. This is one way a child can take back some of the control in their life – if they can control the narrative, it gives them some of the power they’ve lost in the midst of a big life change. For example, if a couple is separating, and a child is asked, “Why isn’t your dad around?” They might lie to their friends and say, “He’s on a work trip,” as a way of making an uncertain situation feel more stable. 

The same is true for aggressive behaviours. Sometimes kids need to feel a sense of stability in their lives, and their behaviours can help them feel in control. For example, a child who recently moved might refuse to go to a new school and kick, scream or swear at drop-off. These challenging behaviours can be signals that your child is seeking to be powerful in an otherwise powerless situation. 

If you’re noticing the onset of aggressive behaviours, lying, whining or defiance, consider this question: have there been any major changes in their life? These situations might include:

  • Moving to a new home.
  • Switching schools.
  • Adding a new baby to the family.
  • Separation or divorce. 

Getting curious about the level of stability in your child’s life can help you get to the bottom of big behaviours.

Get Curious By Tracking Behaviour

Getting to the root cause of challenging behaviour can be tricky because your child’s behaviour could change based on the need your child is trying to meet, or the behaviour could stay the same, but the need your child is trying to meet changes. Here are two practical steps to help you get to the root cause of your child’s behaviour.

Step 1: Ask Questions

Asking questions is a great place to start to help you get to the bottom of your child’s behaviour. Here are two key questions to consider as you’re getting curious:

  • What happened before the behaviour occurred?
  • What happened after the behaviour occurred?

Step 2: Take Notes

Next, help yourself remember the answers to the questions and anything else you might notice by writing everything down. This will be the most helpful way for you to see patterns and trends in your child’s behaviour. Once you notice a pattern, you can start implementing changes! 

Read our blog post, “How to Tackle the Whining Phase,” for an example of how a mom saw less challenging behaviour after tracking her son’s behaviour!

Final Thoughts

Remember, behaviour is communication. Your child is not bad; they are intelligent and capable of getting their needs met. You can help your child find new ways to help get their needs met that will serve them well for the rest of their life.

Understanding WHY your child is hitting, biting, lying, whining, screaming, or doing other challenging behaviour can help you shift the way you see your child’s behaviour. That deeper understanding will help you come up with ways to meet your child’s needs before the behaviour happens!

If you found this blog helpful and want to know even more, or if you need more in-depth support, our Parenting Little Kids course has over 35 video lessons and has helped thousands of parents tackle challenging behaviour, learn how to discipline effectively and reparent themselves in the process. 

You deserve to enjoy parenting and be the best parent you can be!

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.