Anti-Social Behavior

Is your child kicking the cat?

Is your child:

  • Generally acting cruel to others?
  • Slapping his infant brother on the head?
  • Saying, “Let’s make him cry.”
  • Hitting others for seemingly no reason at all?
  • Behaving in a way that makes your dog cower when he enters the room?
  • Kicking or hitting your pets?
  • Trying to hurt animals like throwing sticks or rocks at swans in the park


Sometimes, children do not understand or seem to care how their behavior impacts those around them. Your child may act on any whim without considering consequences at all. It may be that your child expects the baby to follow the same rules or understand things the same way older children do. These unreasonable expectations of siblings could bring out extreme behavior in your child. Similarly, your child may not understand that animals think differently than people. It may be that your child gets frustrated with a dog that ripped up his toy or extremely upset when the cat licks his leg.

It is almost as if your child does not know that there is any perspective but his own. These behaviors are signs of a deficit in social perspective taking, and social perspective taking is a pre-requisite for empathy. If a child is unaware that others think and feel differently, he or she may not pause to think about the impact of his or her actions. Children who do not understand other’s perspectives may be showing signs of a developmental disability or emotional problem.

Other challenges with anti-social behavior may be purely self-motivated. These children do not have concern for other’s feelings and do not feel remorse after they have hurt someone else. As a parent or caregiver, it is important to keep everyone safe and to take these concerns very seriously. Antisocial behavior is a step past aggression because it is cruel in nature, not simply hitting because someone took a toy or pushing out of frustration. This behavior will appear more intense and more concerning than sibling rivalry or an occasional playground squabble.


This problem could be a developmental disability, trauma or behavior.

With regard to developmental disabilities, many children with autism or ADHD may struggle with perspective taking, impulsivity, or sensory problems.

Perspective taking refers to understanding another’s point of view. For example, children who do not understand the impact their behavior has on others are demonstrating poor perspective taking. They may not notice a sibling’s small size or a small animal’s defenselessness. They may not realize their actions could hurt someone or realize that their actions appear cruel. For example, they may accidentally injure the pet hamster or guinea pig. These animals are small and fragile, and if your child accidentally harms them, he or she may not realize cause and effect, that is, the to and fro, the nature of a relationship. Children with autism often have significant challenges in this area.

Impulsivity is acting without thinking. Children with developmental disabilities may also have issues with impulsivity. It could be that your child is ‘like a bull in a china shop.’ The question to ask then is whether he or she feel regretful when a sibling is unintentionally injured. If so, perhaps impulsivity is having an impact on behavior, and his actions are not planned. ADHD may be a diagnosis to consider in that case.

Sensory perception refers to the idea that some children sense and perceive things differently and may be too rough or too loud, as a result. With sensory and perspective taking weaknesses, cruel behaviors may be unintentional.  However, sensory challenges provide no excuse for bad behavior or harm to others. If your child is struggling in terms of sensory regulation and behavior, treatment must include both help for the sensory need AND behavior therapy. Help from a highly trained clinician will be necessary to guide your child toward the pro-social behaviors he or she will need for success in life.

From another perspective, cruelty in this manner could be related to significant emotional concerns or trauma.

Trauma refers to having observed abuse being modeled, having been neglected, or having been exposed to trauma. Children may then develop significant emotional and behavioral symptoms. It will be important to rule out exposure to trauma and to consider what experiences and influences may have had an impact on your child’s development.

Attachment problems might be relevant. It also could be that your family has had a lot of stress or turmoil. Keep in mind that an older sibling who is constantly in trouble with the law or a younger child who is getting all of the attention may be overshadowing your child. These behaviors may be attention seeking.

Loss or divorce may be the issue if your child is lashing out. Even if not particularly recent, grief can impact behavior. If your child lost a step-parent to divorce, a close friend to a cross-country move, or a grandma to old age, your child may show a sudden change in behavior. In this case, your child is likely to understand that the behavior is wrong and to feel a sense of guilt soon afterwards. Your job is to meet the child’s emotional need while still maintaining firm expectations for good behavior.

If the child is in a regular pattern of hurting others and is not showing a sense of remorse, a serious behavior disorder may be present.

Deliberate behavior could also be the issue, if these acts are intentional and occur without empathy. Some behavior problems exist without the presence of another disability. Consider whether or not your child has a sense of remorse.

Parents and professionals are wise to consider Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, psychotherapy, and school consultation immediately if these behaviors persist. Bad habits can be replaced with good habits. Poor coping skills can be replaced with adaptive calming techniques. Good behavior can be reinforced. In so doing, these patterns can be reversed. Do not wait until poor behavior has become entrenched.


These behaviors are extreme, and seeking professional help should be at the top of your list.

Seek help early and often, be persistent, and don’t give up. Your child’s school team and therapist can collaborate to teach your child new skills.

Be consistent in modeling kind and gentle behavior. Don’t spank your child because spanking models hitting. Always have some positive time with your child, despite misbehavior.

Do not provide attention for hitting or destroying things. Remove items that could harm and provide comfort. Often, the calm proximity of a loved one can reinforce coping behavior. Stay quiet and calm. Sit in a relaxed posture rather than standing in a defensive manner. Provide reinforcement for using gentle behavior and safe hands. If you have safety concerns for your child or your family, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.

Maintain safety and security. Make sure you keep sharp knives or anything else dangerous under lock and key. Remember to keep safety and the consistent non-contingent love and support for you child as first priority. Other activities, including schoolwork and athletics, might temporarily take a back burner as you work fervently to teach your child to maintain positive and safe behavior.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Social skills problems (Socializing): some aggressive or anti-social behavior may be due to difficulty with social perspective taking, understanding what reactions are appropriate in a situation and reading other people’s reactions
  • Attachment: some angry and aggressive behavior may be due to lack of trust and the failure to form close relationships with others
  • Impulsivity: some children are active and impulsive, constantly doing things they later regret like riding a bike over that makeshift ramp, breaking things, or hitting a sibling in a moment of anger
  • Aggression: some aggressive behavior can be used to get the attention of parents or to escape a task or demand. A child may hit a sibling to get a reaction from mom or dad


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Behavior Disorders: behavioral disorders that are created by accidental reinforcement of bad behaviors; behaviors that are cruel and intentional may be a sign of a behavior disorder
  • PTSD (Trauma and Attachment Disorders): excessive stress that stems from exposure to abuse or trauma may result in poor development of trusting relationships and acting out behaviors
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors; challenges with social perspective taking or seeing another’s viewpoint may sometimes result in unkind treatment of others
  • ADHD: if behaviors are impulsive and your child does feel remorse, ADHD may play a role in the aggressive or unkind behaviors
  • Attachment Disorder (Trauma and Attachment Disorders): rigidity and extreme behaviors that stem from a trauma history or interrupted attachment to primary caregivers (death of a parent, change of caregivers, abuse)


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat symptoms related to trauma, social skills deficits, and coping skills for emotional challenges
  • ABA Therapist: to treat behavior; assess the function of behavior; can create a treatment plan and a home behavior management program
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to conduct a full assessment and to look at symptoms in mental health and/or behavioral context
  • Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication for depression or bipolar, impulsivity or aggressive behaviors. If your child exhibits behaviors that are putting him or herself or others in danger you may need to call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • Roberts, BASC-3, Clinical Interview, RCMAS, CDI-2, Human Figure Drawing, PTSD Scale, Rorschach, Brief Projective Measures: emotional, behavioral, and personality assessment through drawing tasks, open ended questions, interviews, rating scales, and sometimes storytelling (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)
  • WISC-V: intelligence assessment to establish a baseline of intellectual abilities, which can help us understand emotional knowledge and symptoms and determine what interventions may work best (Psychological or School Psychological evaluation)
  • TOL-2, CTMT, WCST, TOVA: assessment of executive function; may help to determine the skills and resources a child has, such as the ability to plan, organize, and pay attention (Neuropsychological evaluation)
  • ADOS-2: For related concerns in social communication indicating an autism diagnosis should be considered


[1] Durand, V. Mark & Hieneman, Meme (2008). Helping Parents with Challenging Children Positive Family Intervention Facilitator Guide (Programs That Work).


[2] Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. 


[3] Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.


[4] Purvis, Karyn B., & Cross, David R., & Sunshine, Wendy Lyons (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.


[5] Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents. Amazon:

[6]  Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Image Credit:
Description: Leave us Alone
Stock Photo ID: #184084920 (iStock)
By: Paigefalk
Previously Licensed on: May 14, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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