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Problem Behavior in Children and Teens

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KEY POINTS

  • Know your child well, so that you notice any changes in behavior.
  • Some behaviors are more common at certain ages. Problem behavior at any age includes fighting or hurting other children, withdrawing from others, or being sad or depressed much of the time.
  • If your child has problem behavior for longer than a few weeks, or if you cannot cope with his behavior on your own, see your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Get emergency care if your child has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

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How do I know if my child’s behavior is a problem?

You may wonder whether your child's behavior is normal or if something serious is going on. 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 differently from how he has in the past. These changes may be gradual or they may start suddenly. You need to consider:

  • Your child’s age
  • The kind of problem your child is having
  • How long the problem has lasted
  • Changes that affect your child, such as divorce or the death of a friend or family member

Each age and stage brings its own challenges. Here are some guidelines for problem behaviors at different stages:

Babies, Toddlers, and Pre-school Children: Some tantrums are a normal part of child development, and can’t be prevented. For example, it is normal for infants or toddlers to have separation anxiety when apart from their parents. However, contact your healthcare provider for help if your baby or young child:

  • Screams, cries much of the time, or does not respond to you at all
  • Breaks things on purpose
  • Pushes, kicks, bites, or hits other children regularly

School Aged Children: Your child may need professional help if he:

  • Has a lot of trouble making and keeping friends
  • Often bullies or fights with others
  • Is overly dependent on you
  • Does poorly in school or avoids going to school
  • Has trouble focusing much of the time, both at home and at school
  • Lies or cheats regularly
  • Defies rules and authority at home and at school far more than what is usual for children of his age and sex

If your child withdraws from others, seems sad much of the time, or makes any comments about "being better off dead," get help from a mental health professional right away.

Teens: Your teen may be moody and sometimes defiant. Some of this is normal teen behavior. However, your teen may have problems if he:

  • Withdraws from other people and wants to be by himself much of the time
  • Has trouble in school, skips school often, or drops out of school
  • Stops caring about personal hygiene
  • Behaves in unusual ways such as staying up all night for several nights in a row, or thinking that people are out to get him
  • Is overly anxious or starts having panic attacks
  • Hurts himself by cutting, burning, or head-banging
  • Destroys property, steals, or threatens people
  • Abuses drugs or alcohol
  • Seems depressed or talks or jokes about killing himself

What can I do to help my child?

Know your child well, so that you notice any changes in behavior. Take an active interest in what your child or teen is doing at school or other activities he enjoys. Encourage your child to talk with you about what he’s doing and any worries he might have. Let your child talk about stressful events or changes. The support and understanding that you provide can help your child manage stress.

  • Be consistent. Set clear rules and tell your child what you expect. Notice your child's efforts to behave and reward good behaviors. Do not use anger or yell when you discipline your child.
  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children and teens to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks. Help your child learn to handle conflicts and cooperate with others.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Contact your child’s healthcare provider or a therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse.

Get emergency care if your child has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2016-06-30
Last reviewed: 2016-06-29
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 healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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