It is said that the best reaction to most of your child’s problem behavior is to ignore it or to walk away. That a large part of what we describe as bad behavior is actually normal behavior and a means through which children attempt to display traits such as autonomy, independent thinking and decision-making.
But your child’s behavior can quickly turn into a nightmare for you and your entire family, and it is not always easy to tell whether that behavior should be overlooked or dealt with firmly.
Depending on your child’s age, certain behavior is normal. For instance, even though tantrums can be a cause of concern in certain situations, they are normal and rather common in children between the ages of two and six, and they are simple a sign that your child is yet to learn to manage difficult emotions appropriately.
While older children rarely have tantrums and meltdowns, they engage in behavior such as arguing, eyerolling and slamming doors, which, hard as it may be for parents, is often an attempt to break away and to prove their independent thought.
As a general rule, attention-seeking behavior, which may involve your child seeking either negative or positive attention, should be ignored. Whining and tantrums are good examples of such behavior. Ignoring behavior such as back talk – depending on the type of back talk and on your child’s age – can also help reduce that behavior because removing an audience (you) eventually removes all the fun from this type of behavior.
When should you worry about your child’s problem behavior?
There is rarely cause for concern if your child’s behavior is age-appropriate and does not put them or others at risk. Their behavior also depends on your social and cultural settings, meaning that behavior that is considered as “appropriate” often varies depending on different parents and on different contexts.
That said, certain types of behavior are always a sign of a bigger underlying problem. In general, children with behavioral issues:
- React excessively to normal or minor situations
- Display negative behavior traits that tend to escalate over time
- Have frequent and long outbursts
- Are violent and destructive
- May appear withdrawn
- Indulge in behavior that is not age-appropriate, for instance sexual behaviors
- May have suicidal thoughts
- Have problems with both siblings and classmates and may frequently get into fights both at home and in school
Understanding child behavior problems: why do they happen?
Identifying the origins of your child’s problem behavior with certainty is not always an easy task. Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment – despite its shortcomings – showed that problem behaviors such as violence and aggression are learned. Other researchers disagree and argue that most of problem behavior is innate, and that a child’s early environment plays an important role in helping them overcome inappropriate behavior.
Irrespective of whether you believe that problematic behavior in your child is learned or innate, displays of problematic behavior often begins in childhood and they are often your child’s attempt to “gain power and control”.
Everyone agrees that your behavioral expectations – and the extent to which you hold your child accountable for their behavior – affects that behavior. The more you accept specific problem behavior, the more your child gets a sense of control. In other words, how you react to your child’s problem behavior can either reinforce it or put an end to it.
Many child behaviors can be ignored and your child will usually outgrow them without too much trouble. That said, there are certain problem behaviors that should never be ignored, especially because ignoring them can transform them into larger problems that will be much harder to deal with as your child grows older.
Here are five child behavior problems that should never be ignored
5 child behavioral problems that you should correct ASAP
1) Dangerous behavior
You should always be concerned if your child displays dangerous behavior. This is behavior that includes self-injury, property destruction and aggression.
The first and most difficult step is accepting that your child is dangerous. It is normal to make excuses for their behavior but there is really no excuse for dangerous behavior that could affect your child and the people around them.
Dangerous behavior may include:
- Your child’s attempts to harm themselves or others with or without weapons
- Threats to harm themselves or others with or without weapons
- Extreme impulsiveness
- Setting fires
- Animal cruelty
- Intentional destruction of objects or property
2) Bullying is problem behavior that you should never ignore
No one wants their child to be bullied, but no one likes it when their child is the mean kid. While there is some amount of “meanness” in every child, most of your child’s displays of this behavior are often short-lived and harmless episodes. This could look like calling each other names, ignoring each other, or saying other mean or hurtful things.
But “harmless behavior” can quickly turn into bullying, and this tendency is far more widespread than we think. Several studies have reported that up to 53 per cent of kids have confessed to behavior that may be described as bullying. Such behavior includes:
- Verbal bullying. For instance, your child may engage in name-calling and/or make disrespectful comments about someone’s physical appearance
- Relational bullying. For instance, they may exclude someone from a group (games, lunch, sports, etc.)
- Physical bullying, i.e., anything that involves aggressive behavior
- Cyberbullying, i.e., bullying that occurs online
The available research suggests that children who bully have an underlying problem that even they themselves may not be aware of. Ignoring this type of behavior increases the chances of it recurring. Here are simple tips to help if your child is the bully.
3) Aggressive or violent behavior
Just like dangerous behavior, violent and aggressive behavior in children is a cause for concern.
There are many ways in which your child can display violent behavior:
- Physically fighting others at home or in school
- Hurting or threatening to hurt others with or without weapons
- Intentional destruction of property and things
- Frequent and explosive temper loss
Violent or aggressive behavior often stems from “something”. It can result from:
- Your child’s inability to express difficult emotions effectively
- Being physically, verbally or sexually abused themselves
- Your child’s exposure to a violent environment
- A stressful family environment
- Brain injuries
- Genes – many studies suggest that aggression is inborn but can either be made worse or improved by your child’s environment
Contrary to popular belief, few children “grow out of” violent or aggressive behavior, which is why it should never be minimized. The truth is, while violent behavior can be innate or learned (there is no consensus about what causes such behavior), children need to learn how to deal with frustration and threats in a more socially appropriate manner.
If your child displays violent behavior, please contact a qualified health professional who will organize a comprehensive assessment and give you the tools necessary to help them.
4) Verbally abusive language and disrespect is unacceptable negative behavior
Children get mouthy at times – that’s just the way it is. And this insolent behavior tends to get even worse in the pre-teen years. That said, there is a huge difference between language that is verbally abusive and that which is not.
Non-abusive insolent behavior can look like:
- Using a defiant tone when responding to you
- Quarrelsome responses when asked to do something
- Raising their voices to show their disagreement
- Condescending responses
Although dealing with the behaviors described above is always tricky, none of them can be defined as abusive. Verbally abusive language is demeaning and has only one objective: to hurt. Your child referring to you as a “fat cow” or as a “bitch” is verbally abusive and should never be tolerated.
The problem with verbally abusive behavior is that it tends to escalate. In other words, this behavior can start with less aggressive language when your child is young, but ignoring that behavior increases the chances that they will adopt more aggressive and hurtful language as they grow older.
5) Suicidal tendencies
Suicidal tendencies in young children are rare, but they exist. They are the 9th leading cause of death among 5- to 11-year-olds. They are more common among children who have psychological issues such as depression. Some of the common triggers include conflict with family and friends, being bullied, uncontrollable anger, copy-cat suicide, perceived humiliation, school-related stress and any other stressful event (death in your child’s entourage, changing schools and/or moving to a new area).
Here are several things to look out for:
- Self-inflicted injuries
- Frequent talk about death or death-related subjects
- Extreme social withdrawal
- Suicidal ideation, meaning suicide-related thoughts and plans
- Suicide attempts
- Suicide threats
- Unhabitual behavior such as giving away or getting rid of their possessions
Although having suicidal thoughts does not mean that your child will attempt suicide, such thoughts should always be taken seriously. They often reflect underlying issues (depression, extreme anxiety, head-related injuries, schizophrenia, etc.) that should be addressed. Minimizing suicidal tendencies helps reinforce them.
If your child has suicidal tendencies, please contact a health professional who will be able to determine whether the risk of suicide is high, uncover the underlying issue and propose the appropriate care (counseling, hospitalization, etc.).
How can I help my child with behavior problems: 7 things you need to know
- Know where to draw the line
There is a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and that line can be different for different parents depending on their social, cultural, or even historical context.
What really matters is knowing where YOU draw the line: What is respectful behavior? What is not? What is normal behavior for a pre-teen? What do you consider to be hurtful, dangerous, or inappropriate?
Clearly differentiating between normal and genuinely problematic behavior is the first step in the battle against inappropriate behavior. The second step is having clear consequences in place when your child crosses that line: Will you take something away? Will they miss out on something that they enjoy? Will they have to do something “good” to earn “positive points”?
Remember that your child should always be aware of the consequences of their behavior, and you should always be consistent in how you react to specific problem behavior.
2) Emotional regulation is often the key to reducing extreme problem behavior
Many of your child’s behavior problems stem from anger or rather, from their inability to deal with anger and issues such as frustration. A child who is yet to learn to deal effectively with big emotions is more likely to “explode” and react in anger (verbal or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, etc.), which is simply their way of releasing that anger.
This is the reason why many child psychologists say that fostering your child’s emotional intelligence is an important step in dealing with problem behavior. Teaching your child to manage their emotions appropriately means helping them understand that difficult emotions are normal, but it is possible to deal with them without hurting others. Tools such as The Emotions Kit have all the resources you need to help your child learn to identify difficult emotions and, more importantly, identify appropriate coping mechanisms when those emotions strike.
If you are struggling with your child’s explosive anger, The Anger Management Expression Bundle has all the resources you need to deal with the different aspects of your child’s anger-provoked behavior.
3) Do not lower your expectations when faced with defiant behavior
Sometimes it’s so much easier just to “let thing slide”. This could be reflected in behavior such as ignoring problem behavior or making excuses for your child’s behavior (He didn’t really mean it; He said those things because he was tired; She did it because he provoked her, and so on) or because they prefer to avoid their child’s reactions.
When you lower your behavioral expectations, you either send mixed messages to your child by making them believe that their behavior is not that problematic after all or teach them that consequences are negotiable.
4) Nip challenging behaviors in the bud
Sometimes we get accustomed to certain inappropriate behavior in our children – it’s something that just happens.
When Celine’s son first began to hit her, he was only three-years-old. He would hit her when she didn’t let him have his way, or when she would ask him to leave from a friend’s house but he wanted to continue playing. “I thought it was normal behavior for that age, so I didn’t really do anything to stop it”. The only problem is that the hitting did not stop and got even worse as her son grew older.
It is normal to get accustomed to certain child behaviors. Problem is, the more accustomed you get to your child’s inappropriate behavior, the harder it is to deal with it later.
If you have noticed any of the behavior traits mentioned above, please act immediately to prevent them from escalating. Your child needs to know that you will no longer tolerate specific problem behavior and that there will be consequences any time that they display that behavior.
5) Do not let embarrassment stop you from getting the help your child needs
Many parents blame themselves for their child’s inappropriate behavior. But parenting is a tough and slippery affair, and we do not always have the resources we need when we need them. Also, your child’s temperament has a lot to do with their behavior, which explains why you may struggle with only one child and not the others, or why discipline strategies that worked perfectly with your first child fail miserably with your second one.
If you are having a hard time managing your child’s behavior, get help. Or identify an effective discipline strategy that works for you and your family.
6) Do not take your child’s bad behavior personally
Part of the reason why we find it so difficult to deal with our children’s problem behavior is because we tend to take it personally. When your child responds disrespectfully, it can feel like a personal attack, and it is normal human behavior to protect yourself by lashing out yourself.
But lashing out is never the appropriate reaction in the face of your child’s challenging behavior. It sends them the message that they are “winning the fight”, which means that to get similar results in the future, they only need to continue the same behavior.
If you constantly find yourself losing control because of your child’s problem behavior, develop your own “toolbox” to help you manage when you feel like you are losing your cool. This could look like:
- Walking away from the room to calm down
- Splashing your face with cold water
- Taking deep breaths
- Emotionally disengaging from the situation
7) “Put on your oxygen mask first”
Self-care is not a selfish act when it comes to dealing with your child’s inappropriate behavior. It can make the difference between being too overwhelmed to effectively manage that behavior or finding the physical and mental strength to deal with problem behavior the right way.
Dealing with frequent bad behavior is exhausting, and you cannot do it effectively if you are tired and drained. When you take care of yourself, you will find it easier to take care of others. That’s why it is important to schedule “me time” for yourself everyday to do things that you enjoy – read a magazine, catch up on your favorite series, listen to music, walk or jog, and so on. All these activities will make you feel better and prepare you to deal with your child’s problem behavior more easily.
Problem behavior is not uncommon among children with behavioral disorders. Disruptive behavior, extreme impulsiveness and defiance are all common symptoms of these disorders. Here are five behavioral disorders that may help explain your child’s behavior.
Behavioral disorders that may lead to problematic child behavior
Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Attention hyperactive deficit disorder (ADHD) are a common factor among children who display problem behavior.
Here are some of the common symptoms of ADD/ADHD:
- High anxiety
- Poor capacity to process information
The good news is that if a child is successfully treated for ADD or ADHD, then the problem behavior associated with this condition decreases or ceases.
2) Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is a behavioral disorder that is often diagnosed in childhood.
Some common symptoms include:
- Hostility toward authority figures (parents/teachers, etc.)
- Difficulty respecting rules
- Deliberately undertaking actions to annoy others
- Frequent and explosive tantrums
- Defiant and uncooperative behavior
3) Conduct disorder (CD)
Conduct disorder is a behavior disorder that often leads to child problem behavior. Common symptoms include:
- Willfully flaunting rules
- Aggressive behavior (for instance, committing assault)
- Animal cruelty
- Frequent lying
- Use of drugs and other abusive substances
- Willful destruction of property
4) Learning disabilities
If your child has a learning difficulty, it simply means that their brain does not receive and process information in the same way as other children. While learning difficulties are not behavioral disorders, children with these types of difficulties may display behavioral problems because of:
- Their inability to stay focused
- Poor communication skills
- Impulsive behavior
- Hypeactivity, etc.
5) Antisocial personality disorder
The signs of an antisocial personality disorder are often diagnosed before your child turns 15. These include:
- Persistent lying
- Aggressive behavior
- Animal cruelty
- Disrespectful behavior
- Violation of rules
- Violation of others’ property (theft, setting fires, etc.)
- Destruction of property
- Extreme impulsiveness
- Violent behavior
Dealing with child problem behavior can make you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle, but remember that it is never too late to get your child on the right path.
References and further reading
The relationship between animal cruelty in children and adolescent and interpersonal violence: A systematic review
Suicide Prevention Resource Center
Blueprints for violence protection
Bullying Perpetration and Victimization as Externalizing and Internalizing Pathways: A Retrospective Study Linking Parenting Styles and Self-Esteem to Depression, Alcohol Use, and Alcohol-Related Problems
Public Health Agency of Canada
Working with parents of aggressive children: Ten principles and the role of authoritative parenting
Effects of Early Family/Parent Training Programs on Antisocial Behavior and Delinquency
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