My Child Has... Article

My Child Has...

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Problem Behavior in Children and Teens


How do I know if my child is normal?

You may wonder whether your child's behavior is normal or if something serious is going on. Each age and stage brings its own challenges.

Most children misbehave or are unhappy at times. Your child's behavior may seem different from other children of the same age. Your child may behave unusually or differently from how he has in the past. These changes may be gradual or they may happen suddenly. You need to consider:

  • the age of your child
  • the kind of problem your child is having
  • how long the problem has lasted

Here are some guidelines for problem behaviors at different stages:

Babies, Toddlers, and Pre-school Children: Children develop skills and abilities at different ages. For example, some babies may walk by the age of 11 months, while others do not walk until the age of 15 months. Toddlers learn to walk and talk. You do not need to worry if your child is not developing exactly as other children you observe. However, talk with your child's healthcare provider if your child:

  • is much slower than most children learning to walk, feed himself, or talk
  • never explores his environment
  • does not respond to you when you talk or play with him or her

If you think that your child is not developing normally, see your child's healthcare provider. The provider will examine the child and ask about symptoms and medical history. The provider may order some tests. The provider may refer your child to a mental health specialist for further tests or treatment. Your child's provider can help find out if the behavior could be caused by:

  • a physical condition such as allergies, hearing problems, or medicine
  • a learning disability
  • changes in the family such as divorce, a new child, or the death of a family member

You can also check out any questions or concerns you have with trained professionals such as your child's preschool teacher.

School Aged Children: It is normal for infants or toddlers to have separation anxiety when apart from their parents. It is much less common for school aged children to be heartbroken when leaving their parents to attend school. Temper tantrums are common for two-year-olds when they don't get what they want. They are not as common in school aged children. Some tantrums can be so extreme that they are frightening.

Children may need professional help if they:

  • have a lot of trouble making and keeping friends
  • show poor social skills, such as fighting or bullying
  • are overly dependent on you
  • are hyper much of the time
  • perform poorly in school or avoid going to school
  • have trouble focusing much of the time, both at home and at school

If your child withdraws from others, seems sad much of the time, and especially if they make any comments about "being better off dead," seek help from a mental health professional right away.

Teenagers: You may have gotten used to having a fairly cheerful, usually compliant school-aged child. You now have a sometimes moody, sometimes defiant teen. You may need support from others to help you make the transition.

Parenting a teenager is a balancing act. You need to balance your actions and attitudes. For example, you still need to provide structure and guidance. However, you should encourage teens to make their own decisions and become more independent. You should not be overly concerned about your teen's rebelliousness and moodiness. However, you must not underestimate the dangers of problem behaviors.

Examples of the kinds of behavior that may indicate a problem include:

  • socially withdrawing and becoming isolated
  • depression
  • drastic decline of school performance
  • stops caring about personal hygiene
  • odd behavior such as frequently talking to themselves, staying up all night for several nights in a row, or paranoia (thinking that people are out to get them)
  • self-injury (cutting, burning, or head-banging)
  • destroying property or threatening people
  • suspected substance abuse
  • threats of homicide or suicide

Get immediate help if your child:

  • is violent
  • attempts self-injury
  • threatens suicide
  • is completely unable to carry on normal routines

What can I do to help my child?

Know your children well, so that you notice any changes in their behavior. Take an active and regular interest in what your child or teen is doing at school or other activities they enjoy. Encourage your children to talk about what they are doing. Listen to any worries they might have.

If your child behaves in ways that disrupt daily life, or does things that cause you serious concern, talk with a professional. Getting help early may help avoid more serious problems later on.

Where can I find professional help for my child?

Your child's healthcare provider can refer you to specialists who work with children and teens with behavioral and emotional problems. These may include psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers.

It is important to find the right therapist for your child. Ask questions and get referrals from people you know and trust, such as:

  • friends or family members who have been in therapy
  • your child's pediatrician
  • your child's school psychologist or guidance counselor
  • your employee assistance program (EAP) through your employer
  • community mental health agencies
  • community human service agencies (Social Services, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services)
  • university departments of psychology, social work, or child development (Universities often have training centers for graduate counseling students. The students see community members and charge a minimal fee.)
  • professional associations such as:
    • American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy
    • American Psychiatric Association
    • American Psychological Association
    • National Association of Social Workers

Written by Pamela Daniel, PhD.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-11
Last reviewed: 2010-06-11

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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