One of the most common questions I get asked as a child psychologist is “My child does ____, is that a problem?” Even to a trained professional, this question is not always so easy to answer. That’s because most of the common emotional and behavioral problems that children and teens exhibit, including anxiety, depression and hyperactivity, might be considered normal under some conditions. For example, many children feel anxious starting a new school, sad when a friend moves away, or have a hard time sitting still or paying attention during a conversation among adults or while watching a long and boring movie.
Identifying a specific child or teen behavior as problematic depends on several factors:
Intensity: Is the intensity of the child’s behavior grossly out of proportion to the situation?
Throwing a tantrum to avoid the first day of kindergarten may be typical; doing it every day for weeks on end is not. In addition, although all children get upset or frustrated at times, repeatedly throwing objects or breaking things as a result may signal a problem. Other overly intense reactions may include panic attacks and severe clinging or crying in response to relatively unthreatening situations, staying in bed all day in response to a mildly sad event, or violent outbursts in response to perceived slights or intrusions into his or her personal space.
Duration: Does the behavior usually continue after the situation has been resolved?
Separation difficulties on school mornings typically get better within a couple of weeks of the start of school. Similarly, feeling upset or angry about losing a soccer match or not being able to have a sleepover at a friend’s house should usually resolve within a day or two.
Developmental Level: Is the child’s behavior inappropriate for his/her age or developmental level?
It’s pretty normal for a six year old to whine in a boring situation, cry over a minor frustration, or refuse to sleep alone, but much less so for a teenager to do the same. Similarly, it is not uncommon for a young child to shy away when asked to say “hi” when mom and dad’s friends come over or when asked to order for him or herself in a restaurant. When a teenager does these same things or is repeatedly unwilling to answer the phone or doorbell that may be a sign of excessive anxiety.
Distress: Is the behavior upsetting to the child or other family members?
When everyone is tired or hungry, some behaviors may be irritating but understandable. When a child is never happy or content even with the most positive situations, this may be a red flag. Siblings who are constantly upset, embarrassed or angry about their brother or sister’s behavior may also signal a problem with that child.
Interference: Does the child’s behavior interfere with his or her and/or family functioning?
Some children seem to always be slow to get ready or late for things, which may be annoying but not significantly interfere with family activities. However, a child or teen who repeatedly causes the family to miss movies, birthday parties or baseball games or who repeatedly causes his or her siblings to be late for school is more concerning. Along these lines, child behaviors that repeatedly interfere with meals, bedtime routines or other family activities may indicate a problem.
Context: Is the behavior inappropriate to the situation?
Some anxiety prior to a big exam, giving a book report in class, or going to the doctor or dentist is normal. Fears of going to a close relative’s house, to a restaurant, or shopping with mom are less typical. Arguing over who gets to use the computer at home or sit in the front seat of the car is also common, but regular fights among siblings in public places, like when shopping, eating out, or even at school, may suggest something is wrong.
Spontaneity: Does the child’s behavior occur out of the blue for no obvious reason?
A child or teen who occasionally “sasses” is typical. A mild-mannered child who suddenly starts screaming, “I hate you” for no reason may signal an underlying problem. Repeated instances of crying, panicking, or hitting a parent or siblings for no reason may also indicate a problem.
Avoidance: Does the behavior lead the child to try and avoid important social, school or family activities?
Trying to avoid homework, chores, or ‘boring’ family activities like grocery shopping is common among children and teens. However, children who refuse to go to school, who avoid even “fun” activities such as going to a park or birthday party or even being with friends may have issues with mood or anxiety that need to be addressed.
All children are different, and even the most typical child or teen may engage in “problematic” behaviors from time to time, especially when they are tired, stressed or sick. However, if your child or teen repeatedly engages in inappropriate or unwanted behaviors similar to those described above, then it may be time to consider seeking consultation with a qualified child and adolescent mental health professional.
Proper citation link for this blog post:
Piacentini, J. (2016, March 7) When should I be worried about my child’s behavior? Retrieved from http://infoaboutkids.org/blog/when-should-i-be-worried-about-my-childs-behavior/.