Child Behavior Problems: What's Normal and What Isn't

Identifying Normal Misbehavior Throughout the Years

Is your child's behavior normal?
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Children are supposed to break the rules and test the limits sometimes. That's how they learn about which behaviors are acceptable and which behaviors are inappropriate. But sometimes, it's hard to know whether your child's misbehavior falls into the realm of 'normal behavior problems.'

Warning Signs of a Serious Behavior Problem

Identifying normal misbehavior requires knowledge about child development.

What's normal for a preschooler isn't normal for a teenager. It's important to be aware of normal social, emotional and sexual development in each age group. 

Some general warning signs that may indicate more serious behavior problems include:

  • Difficulty managing emotional outbursts – If your child can’t control his anger, frustration, or disappointment in socially and age-appropriate means, he may have an underlying emotional problem. Although it is normal for preschoolers to have occasional temper tantrums, older children should have better control over their emotions.
  • Difficulty managing impulses - Impulse control develops slowly over time. A child who struggles to refrain from using physical aggression after he begins school, or a child who can't gain control of his verbal impulses by the time he's a tween, may have a more serious behavior problem.
  • Behavior that does not respond to discipline – It’s normal for kids to repeat misbehavior from time to time to see if a parent will follow through with discipline, but it’s not normal for a child to exhibit the same behavior repeatedly if you're applying consistent discipline.
  • Behavior that interferes with school – Misbehavior that interferes with your child's education may indicate an underlying behavior disorder. Getting sent out of class, getting into fights at recess, and difficulty staying on task are all potential warning signs.
  • Behavior that interferes with social interaction – It’s normal for kids to have spats with peers, but if your child’s behavior interferes with his ability to maintain friendships, it’s likely a problem. Children should be able to maintain age appropriate behavior in social settings as well, such as the grocery store.
  • Self-injury or talk about suicide – Any child who bangs his head, burns himself or cuts himself should be evaluated by a mental health professional. It’s also important to have a child evaluated by a professional if there is any talk about suicide.
  • Sexualized behaviors that are not developmentally appropriate - If you are concerned about sexualized behavior, educate yourself about normal versus abnormal sexual development in children. At any age, sexualized behavior should never be coercive.

Normal Behavior in Preschoolers (4 to 5 Year Olds)

As preschoolers seek more independence, it’s normal for them to argue and exercise their right to say, “no.” Preschoolers commonly vacillate between demanding they are a big kid who can do everything on their own, to using baby talk to declare they need help with a simple task.

Preschoolers may still exhibit the occasional tantrum but they should be gaining more control over their emotions and impulses compared to when they were toddlers. Any temper tantrums at this stage should be shorter and less intense than the toddler years.

Preschoolers may exhibit some minor aggression, but they should be learning more how to use their words instead violence.

Time-out is a great discipline technique for preschoolers because at this age, they crave attention and removing them from the situation can be a big consequence. Ignoring mild misbehavior is another great discipline strategy for preschoolers.

Effective Discipline Strategies for 4-Year-Old Children
Effective Discipline Strategies for 5-Year-Old Children

Normal Behavior in Grade School Kids (6 to 9 Year Olds)

As grade school kids take on more responsibility, they often want more freedom than they can handle. At this age, kids require a fair amount of guidance when it comes to doing chores, completing their homework and taking care of their hygiene. It’s normal for grade school kids to lack self-discipline.

As they begin to solve problems on their own and try new activities, they may struggle to deal with not being the best or failing at completing a task. Grade schoolers usually need help dealing with uncomfortable emotions, like frustration and anxiety, and it's common for them to lack verbal impulse control.

Reward systems can be very effective at this age. Use positive discipline techniques, that reward good behavior, and implement logical consequences when rules are broken. Provide plenty of opportunities for your child to practice making good decisions, while also offering lots of guidance.

Effective Discipline Strategies for 6-Year-Old Children
Effective Discipline Strategies for 7-Year-Old Children

Effective Discipline Strategies for 8-Year-Old Children
Effective Discipline Strategies for 9-Year-Old Children

Normal Behavior in Tweens (10 to 12 Year Olds)

When kids hit the tween years, their budding independence often comes across in their “attitude” toward their parents. It’s normal for tweens to be mildly oppositional and argumentative as they begin to try to separate from their parents.

Tweens often have difficulty with social skills and they may report frequent disagreements amongst friends. It’s normal for them to struggle with impulsivity at times as well and they need guidance to help them learn to think before they act or speak. They also tend to lack the ability to recognize long-term consequences of their behavior.

Tweens still need to receive a lot of positive attention from parents to help them develop a healthy self-esteem during these awkward years. They can still usually benefit from reward systems, especially a token economy system. A token economy system can reduce power struggles and give tweens an extra incentive to behave responsibly.

Top 10 Discipline Techniques for Tweens

Normal Behavior in Teens (13 and Over)

Teens often like to think they are adults, but they still need a lot of help (especially the younger teens) when it comes to making healthy decisions. Teens often still struggle to manage their impulses and they may struggle to determine who they really are as individuals. It’s common for teens to change social groups or test out new hairstyles or clothing styles as they try to establish their identity.

Teenagers should have improved self-discipline when it comes to doing their homework or getting their chores done on time. They may still be rather moody and some mild non-compliance and defiance is normal. Minor rebellion is also normal as teens often want to show their parents they can have control over their own lives.

Younger teens can still benefit from token economy systems and they should lose privileges for misbehavior. Problem-solving is often a very effective way to deal with misbehavior in teens. And although older teens may balk at any discipline attempts, there are several effective discipline methods for older teens.

Best Consequences for Teenage Misbehavior

Addressing Behavior Problems in Children of All Ages

Minor behavior problems can often be addressed by making a few changes to your discipline strategies. Look for ways to make discipline more effective. For example, if you’ve been grounding your child for not getting his homework, try offering a positive consequence that motivates him to do his work.

More serious behavior problems may require professional help. Talk to your child’s doctor about getting a referral for a qualified behavioral health professional. A professional can work with you and your child on evaluating and addressing behavior problems.

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