Inappropriate Social Behavior in Children

Clear feedback helps children know which behaviors aren't appropriate and why.

Good or normal social behavior isn’t something that children intuitively posses. According to the University of Chicago’s Elizabeth H. Brady in a journal article for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, children develop social behaviors by watching others. Despite a parent’s best efforts and modeling pro-social behavior, some children still have difficulties reacting to social situations appropriately.

Reasons for Inappropriate Social Behavior

According to the article, "Five Facts Every Family Should Know," published on the PBS site, there is always a reason for problematic social behavior. For example, a child may feel as if a need isn’t met or that something is wrong. A child may act inappropriately in a social setting if he’s prone to acting impulsively or seeks attention. In some instances, children don’t understand the social norms of a situation or don’t know how to follow the norms. For example, a child who doesn’t know how to express his anger in a healthy manner may behave poorly. If a child feels unsafe, he may engage in an inappropriate social behavior to feel a sense of control.

Biological Issues

In some instances, a child may behave badly because of a biological issue that may impair her ability to behave appropriately. Such issues can include autism, Asperger’s Syndrome or ADHD. The article, "Signs of Learning Disabilities," by Cheryl Weinstein, Ph.D. on the PBS website states that signs that inappropriate behavior may be linked to a mental or learning disability can include delays in developmental milestones, difficulty making friends, trouble making eye contact, difficulty understanding jokes, not understanding facial expressions or frequent conversations about a specific topic. If you suspect that your child has a disability, voice your concern to your child’s pediatrician.

Recognizing Patterns in Behavior

To better understand your child’s poor social behavior, the article on the PBS website, "Factors That Contribute to Challenging Behavior," recommends observing him to see if you notice any patterns that may occur. Whenever you see your child displaying inappropriate social behavior, take note of the location, time of day, the events that took place before the behavior occurred and the reaction the behavior received. Notice if your child was trying to avoid or get away from a person, place or thing. Did he feeling hungry, tired, sad, confused, angry, frustrated, nervous or bored?

How to Help

Your child learns a lot by watching your social interactions, so it’s important that you model the behavior that you expect from your child. Once you identify your child’s triggers, you can use this knowledge to help your kid in a positive and supportive manner. After your child behaves inappropriately, calmly pull her aside, explain to which actions were wrong and teach her the socially appropriate ways to express herself. In the article, "When Your Child Has Trouble" on, the author, Peggy Schmidt, recommends role playing after a difficult situation where your child comes up with healthy alternatives to how she behaved and responded. If a social gathering is in the future, give your child clear expectations and tell her what may happen at the event. By role playing, your child can practice sharing, simple social etiquette rules, expressing herself in a constructive manner and seeing what negative and positive social behaviors look like.