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Problem Behavior in Children and Teens

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:

  • The age of your child
  • 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 constantly, or does not respond to you at all
  • Breaks things on purpose
  • Pushes, kicks, bites, or hits other children

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

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. You should not be overly concerned if your teen rebels or is moody. However, you do need to watch out for danger signs. Your teen may have problems if he:

  • Withdraws from other people and wants to be by himself all the time
  • Has trouble in school or stops going to 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
  • Hurts himself by cutting, burning, or head-banging
  • Destroys property, steals, or threatens people
  • Abuses drugs or alcohol
  • Seems depressed or threatens to kill 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 they enjoy. Encourage your child to talk to 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.

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.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-30
Last reviewed: 2014-06-30
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 ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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