Page header image

Problem Behavior in Children and Teens



  • 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 the behavior on your own, see your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Get emergency care if your child has thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.


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 or she 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 family member or friend

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:

  • Your child has a lot of trouble making and keeping friends.
  • Your child often bullies or fights with others.
  • Your child is overly dependent on you.
  • Your child does poorly in school or avoids going to school.
  • Your child has trouble focusing much of the time, both at home and at school.
  • Your child lies or cheats regularly.
  • Your child defies rules and authority at home and at school far more than what is usual for children of the same age and gender.

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:

  • Your teen withdraws from other people and wants to be alone much of the time.
  • Your teen has trouble in school, skips school often, or drops out of school.
  • Your teen stops caring about personal care such as brushing teeth, bathing, and grooming.
  • Your teen 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 or her.
  • Your teen is overly anxious or starts having panic attacks.
  • Your teen hurts self by cutting, burning, or head-banging.
  • Your teen destroys property, steals, or threatens people.
  • Your teen abuses drugs or alcohol.
  • Your teen seems depressed or talks or jokes about killing himself or herself.

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 your child enjoys. Encourage talks with you about what your child is doing and any worries your child 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 a good role model. Your child will often follow your lead and try to do what you do. Set a good example and deal with your child in a quiet, calm manner.
  • 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.
  • Support your child. Encourage children to talk about whatever they want to talk about. Be a good listener. This helps children begin to realize that their feelings and thoughts really do matter, and that you never stop caring. If your child shuts you out, don't walk away. Let children know that you are there for them whenever they need you.
  • 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 health. Make sure your child eats a variety of healthy foods and gets enough sleep and physical activity every day. Talk to your child about the risks of smoking and using e-cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and using drugs.
  • Contact your child’s healthcare provider or a therapist if you have any questions or if your child’s behaviors seem to be getting worse.

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

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2021-07-27
Last reviewed: 2018-05-21
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.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
Page footer image