Does My Child Have Behavioural Problems?
Distinguishing between mischief and troublesome behaviour can be challenging for any parent. This is because all children at some point misbehave.
As psychologists with experience in child-matters, we understand your concern and in this article we will cover the following:
- What is normal child behaviour?
- The ABCs of behaviour
- Common children behavioural challenges based on age range
- Symptoms to look out for, and;
- What you can do about it.
What is ‘normal’ behaviour for a child?
The difference between normal and abnormal behaviour is not always clear.
All children are different and it’s worth keeping in mind that there is no prototype for “normality”. In reality, there’s a fine line between quirky behaviour and abnormal behaviour. At some stage, every child will have moments of mischief or temper tantrums.
Standard behaviour will vary depending on the stage of development your child is in. This is because child development is never linear. That is, two children of the same age may be in completely different stages of emotional maturity and social development.
Normal behaviour is also something that changes according to context.
ABCs of behaviour
The ABCs of behaviour are a series of “what” questions that can help you to take a step back and examine why your child may be responding in a certain way.
- Antecedent – What were the events leading up to the behaviour?
- Behaviour – What is the behaviour exactly?
- Consequence – What did you do to solve the problem?
Before jumping to any conclusions in regards to your child’s behaviour, it’s important to consider the root cause of their behaviour.
For instance, if your child is well behaved at home, but causing trouble in the classroom, their behaviour may be influenced by other misbehaving friends, difficulties keeping up, etc. However, if the same behaviour persists regardless of the environment, this may be indicative of an underlying condition.
Once you have identified the exact behaviour, offer the right response.
For example, if you find yourself giving your child sweets to keep them from misbehaving at the shops, you are encouraging the misbehaviour.
Remember, your responses set the precedents for their behaviour. Warm but consistent parenting with clear rules is optimal for a child’s development.
Typical age based behavioural challenges
Children are meant to break the rules. As frustrating as that sounds, acting out or rebelling against their parents is how they learn what they can and can’t get away with. This is how young children learn about the consequences of their actions.
The following behaviours can easily be corrected through patient parenting. They are completely normal in children and are usually a product of their age or developmental stage.
Children aged 3-5 years
Preschool-aged children crave independence. It is normal for them to start talking back or refusing tasks that their parents give them. At this stage of their development, they want to start exercising their option to say no.
They will constantly switch between “I can do it myself, I’m all grown up” and “I need help, I can’t do it” when it suits them.
They may still exhibit tantrums when frustrated or angry, but they should be at the stage where it is less frequent and intense than in the toddler years. Children of this age may also start to show aggressive tendencies, but should be actively encouraged to use their words instead of resorting to violence.
School Children aged 5-11 years
As they begin to discover a world outside of home, primary school kids will often crave more responsibility and freedom than they can manage.
They may still be at the stage where they need help managing uncomfortable emotions and will need the support to navigate through them.
With the introduction of schoolwork, failure is another factor that can have detrimental effects on their self-esteem. This may be reflected through troublesome behaviour.
This stage is also where parents may notice that their child is having difficulty concentrating. Lapses in concentration can be common at this age but if they are too severely impeding your child’s learning or persists past the primary school years, this could be a sign of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Signs and symptoms of child behaviour problems
Certain behaviours, however, should raise concerns especially if consistent attempts to resolve them have shown no signs of progress. They may include:
- High frequency of tantrums and/or unreasonable levels of aggression
- Cases of bullying other children or physical fights with peers at school
- Permanent difficulty focusing on a specific task and/or extreme impatience
If any of these traits are your primary areas of concern, book in with our team of child psychology to discuss the next course of action for you and your child.
Influences and risk factors on behavioural issues
There are a number of environmental factors that can cause unwelcome responses in children. These can include but are not limited to:
- Life changes – Children have limited life experiences and anything that deviates from what they’re used to can pose significant challenges. This could be anything from moving house to the birth of a new sibling. It could even be something much smaller.
- You’re having a tough time – Children are quick to emulate or react to your feelings of distress. They may react badly to you feeling upset or having ongoing issues in the family. Everyone can become overwhelmed with what life throws at them so you shouldn’t blame yourself, but you shouldn’t blame your child for feeling the same way.
- They Crave Attention – Your child may see acting out as a way of obtaining attention. This may be because they feel like they aren’t getting quality time with you. It’s important to give them more attention when they’re behaving well, as positive reinforcement can help them to associate good behaviour with attention and vice versa for bad behaviour.
It is difficult to identify what directly causes behavioural issues, but there are some risk factors that may make children more prone to developing issues.
- Gender – Boys are much more likely to suffer from behavioural disorders.
- Temperament – Children who are more temperamental or aggressive tend to develop behavioural issues later in life.
- Family life – Behavioural disorders occur more often in children from dysfunctional families. Children in families where domestic violence, poverty, poor parenting skills or substance abuse are a problem are considered to be at severe risk.
- Neural development – Children with ADHD are less able to utilise the areas of their brain that control attention
What can I do about it?
Most parents will resort to self-blame when they have identified a behavioural issue in their child. However, you need to understand that behavioural problems are not necessarily a reflection of yourself or your parenting ability. Everyone who raises a child will have to go through the good and the bad. In a way, being concerned about your child’s mental health and behaviour is completely normal.
It’s the response that matters.
The way that you respond to unwanted behaviour is much more important than preventing the behaviour full stop. Below are some tactics you can implement to ensure that you are giving your child the appropriate response to their behaviour.
Impacts of how you respond to children’s behaviour
Positive reinforcement means focusing on the positive aspects of your child’s behaviour and rewarding them proactively, rather than directing any attention toward any unwanted behaviours.
Sometimes it can be easy to focus your attention on the negative aspects of your child’s behaviour because parents want to address and prevent the behaviour as soon as possible. However, to young children and even sometimes older ones, negative attention is still attention. If your child is acting out because they are seeking attention, then negative attention will still validate their behaviour.
Instead, reinforce positive behaviours before they have any chance of becoming negative (e.g. “Wow! Well done on cleaning your room. I bet other kids double your age couldn’t do it as well as you do!”). This encourages your child by drawing attention to their positive behaviour, rather than waiting until their room becomes a complete mess to scold them.
You can also implement a positive behaviour system in your home. Kids react extremely well to gamification and tangible rewards. By setting up a gold sticker chart for all chores completed and giving them rewards such as sweets or a day trip out to somewhere of their choice you are encouraging and bringing attention to their positive behavioural traits.
Enforce boundaries and consequences
Enforcing boundaries and immediate consequences can be paired with positive reinforcement tactics to ensure that discipline is consistent and so that the child knows what will happen in the case of bad behaviour.
Make sure they are initially given a second chance to amend their behaviour, but if they persist, then there should be an age-appropriate immediate consequence for their actions.
Time-out can be a good tactic to enforce an immediate consequence but must be used appropriately to be effective. It should not be used to make children suffer for prolonged periods of time, but rather as an opportunity for them to correct their behaviour.
Time-out should also be a last resort. It should not be the go-to method for discipline. As mentioned earlier, sometimes ignoring negative behaviour can be a better method of prevention, especially for attention-seeking behaviour such as whinging, tantrums or swearing.
Tactics that negatively influence behaviour
Though consequences are necessary, certain forms of discipline can have more harmful than supportive effects. These tactics should be avoided as much as possible, if not completely.
- Physical Discipline – Can have hugely detrimental effects on a child’s development as it teaches children that aggression, antisocial behaviour and violence are all okay. Physical discipline has also been linked to a myriad of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
- Shouting – In extreme cases of frustration or concern, shouting may be justified. However, repeated shouting at children can have similar harmful effects to physical discipline.
- Isolation – Leaving your child in isolation for extended periods of time as a form of punishment can cause distress, eventually leading to higher chances of abandonment related trauma and anxiety in the future.
When should I be concerned?
Perhaps the most important question to consider is, “How much distress is your child’s problem causing you, the child, or other members of the family?”
If a child’s aggressive or argumentative attitude is a major problem for a child, their school, or other members of their family, then it would be best to consult a child psychologist to at least come up with some support tactics for your child.
Where to seek help
Asking for help doesn’t make you a bad parent. In fact, it is the very opposite. By reaching out to someone for help, you are doing the best thing for your child’s development.
If your child is showing signs of bad behaviour predominantly at school, then it may be worthwhile consulting a teacher or school counsellor before escalating the issue.
However, if behaviours persist despite all other efforts, it is a good idea to consult a child psychologist to help take the pressure off your shoulders.
How can a psychologist help
Child psychology differs from mainstream psychology because it accounts for the mental development of children at each age. Child behavioural psychologists are essential because children with emotional, mental and/or behavioural disorders usually require different treatment from adults.
Your psychologist can help determine alternative methods to help support your child’s development, as well as helping to diagnose any potential behavioural disorders.
Recommended reading: ‘Could your child benefit from a behavioural psychologist?’
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Are my child’s behavioural problems my fault?
No. Your child’s behaviour may stem from any number of factors and is not a direct consequence of your parenting or actions. Although some family environments or methods of discipline can contribute to behavioural issues, it is rare that the root cause of the problem lies solely with the parent.
2. What is disruptive behaviour vs. behavioural problems?
Disruptive behaviour is normal and occurs in every child at some point or another. This kind of behaviour can usually be amended through patience and support. Behavioural problems are rarer cases of underlying disorders that may impede your child’s development.
3. Common behavioural disorders in children
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
1 in 10 children under the age of 12 are diagnosed with ODD. Standard behaviours stemming from ODD include:
- Easily angered, annoyed or frustrated
- Frequent temper tantrums
- Deliberately seeks to annoy or anger others
- Refusal to obey rules
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Around two to five per cent of children are thought to have ADHD. The main characteristics of ADHD are:
- Difficulty maintaining attention
- Impulsive actions
- Restlessness or constant fidgeting
Conduct Disorder (CD)
Children with CD tend to display continual patterns of antisocial behaviour such as aggression toward others as well as intentional rule-breaking behaviour. Around five per cent of 10-year-olds are thought to have conduct disorder.
Typical behaviours exhibited by a child with CD may include:
- Refusal to obey parents and other authority figures
- Repeated truancy
- Tendency to use drugs, including cigarettes and alcohol, at a very early age
- Lack of empathy for others
- Keenness to start physical fights
- Frequent lying
- Criminal behaviour such as stealing, arson and vandalism
- A tendency to run away from home or school
4. Can behaviour change?
Kids always change for better or for worse. Your child can always overcome behavioural problems through the right guidance and support. If your child is showing any symptoms of behavioural issues, do not be discouraged. Instead, show them attention in the right ways, provide consistent discipline and if necessary, reach out to a child behavioural psychologist for help.
Looking For A Child Psychologist Near You?
New Vision Psychology can help with 5 convenient locations across Sydney