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

Identifying Normal Misbehavior Throughout the Years

Angry little boy looking at puzzles
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Children are supposed to break the rules sometimes. Testing limits is how they learn 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.

Becoming aware of normal social, emotional, and sexual development in each age group can help you determine when your child's behavior constitutes normal acting out and when you should be concerned.

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

  • Difficulty managing emotional outbursts – Although it is normal for preschoolers to have occasional temper tantrums, older children should be able to cope with their feelings in a socially appropriate manner. If your child can’t control his anger, frustration, or disappointment in an age-appropriate manner, he could have an underlying emotional problem.
  • Difficulty managing impulses - Impulse control develops slowly over time. A child who becomes aggressive after he begins school, or a child who yells at his teacher as a teen, likely needs help developing better skills.
  • Behavior that does not respond to discipline – It’s normal for kids to repeat their mistakes 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. If your child continues to exhibit the same misbehavior regardless of the consequences, it could be a problem.
  • 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 prevents him from having friends, that's a problem. Children should be able to develop and maintain healthy relationships with their peers.
  • 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 - It's normal for kids to be curious about the opposite sex and to want to know where babies come from. But sexualized behavior should never be coercive, at any age.

Normal Behavior in Preschoolers (4 to 5-Year-Olds)

As preschoolers seek independence, it’s normal for them to argue and exercise their right to say, “no.” They 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.

They crave attention and removing them from the action can be a big consequence. Ignoring mild misbehavior is another great discipline strategy for preschoolers.

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. They will likely require a fair amount of guidance when it comes to doing chores, completing their homework and taking care of their hygiene.

As they begin to solve problems on their own and try new activities, they may struggle to deal with failure. Grade schoolers usually need a little 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.

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 may struggle with social skills and they may report frequent disagreements with friends. They also tend to lack the ability to recognize long-term consequences of their behavior.

Focus on teaching your child life skills, like how to wash the dishes, as well as social skills, like how to greet a new person. Look for teachable moments and turn your child's mistakes into learning opportunities.

Tweens need positive attention to reinforce their good behavior during these awkward years. They often 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.

Normal Behavior in Teens (13 and Over)

Teens often like to think they are adults, but they still need help making healthy decisions. Be prepared to deal with a variety of phases your teen may enter as she tries to determine who she is as an individual. 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. As long as your teen lives under your roof, it's important to establish clear rules and follow through with consequences.

Address 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 require professional help. If you have concerns about your child's behavior, or your discipline strategies aren't working, talk to your child’s doctor.

A doctor can help you determine whether your child's behavior is normal or whether a referral to a specialist is needed. A comprehensive evaluation may be necessary to assist your child in getting back on track.

Sources:

Gleason MM, Goldson E, Yogman MW, Addressing Early Childhood Emotional and Behavioral Problems, Pediatrics, November 2016

Healthchildren.org. Normal Child Behavior. Updated Nov. 2015.

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