Problematic behavior is not uncommon; everyone exhibits it at some time, for example in excessive reactions to something someone says, or in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as comfort eating. Problematic child behavior is even more common, as their developing brain only reaches maturity in adulthood.
In addition, children may be able to exert more control over their behavior in some kinds of circumstances rather than in others, particularly when emotions are running high. While parents find this understandably exasperating, it is normal.
That being said, there are some problematic behaviors in children that parents must not ignore. This is especially true when these behaviors happen frequently and have a detrimental impact on a child’s life and relationships.
When this happens, it is definitely time to take action. Responding quickly increases the chance of putting a stop to the behavior before it intensifies and/or has serious ramifications.
Whatever the behavioral challenges you are facing with your children, do not despair. Because a child’s brain is still developing it has an outstanding capability to change. Caregivers and other adults can assist a child in building appropriate coping skills and emotional-regulation techniques that will help to address challenging behavior.
As we explore various child behavior problems, it is important to consider the reasons behind the child’s behavior, which Daniel Siegel, M.D. And Tina Payne Bryson, PhD., in their book No Drama Discipline (2014) call “chasing the why”.
Instead of assuming the reason for the behavior, which we tend to base on our own reactions, it is crucial to investigate what may be causing it.
10 Child Behavior Issues
It is probably fair to say that most, if not all, people have told lies, whether big or small, so it is not unusual for children to also do so. However, there is a point at which lying reaches problem status – when lying becomes a regular occurrence or a habit. Children may have various motivations for lying.
A child may resort to lies when they feel afraid and worried; in this case, lying may be a means of avoidance or management of an object or situation they are afraid of. Issues of self-esteem may also result in lying; in this instance to project a different self-image to their peers. A child who feels ashamed after being reprimanded or having scored badly on a test may lie as a result of a poor self-confidence.
Additionally, Carol Brady, Ph.D., suggests that children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may lie because of impulse-control difficulties. (ADDitude Magazine). That is, they do not think before they speak.
As with telling lies, many children will, at some point, try stealing. Most of them, however, will rapidly realize that stealing is an unacceptable behavior. For those children who continue to steal and do not recognize it as unacceptable, stealing becomes a problem behavior.
There may be various explanations for why a child steals. It may be that the act of stealing is exhilarating to a child, or perhaps because it enables them to somehow feel in control. It is important to question a child’s motivation to get to the bottom of the behavior.
3. Violence Toward Self, Others, or Property
A more serious behavioral problem concerns children who threaten to hurt themselves or other persons. It is vital that these threats are not dismissed or ignored. Similarly, children who engage in self-injury (e.g. cutting or scratching) or who exhibit bullying behaviors towards others must be taken seriously.
Such distressing behaviors can be warning signs that the child is struggling with deep-rooted emotional issues, such as depression. Self-injury, for example, is a coping mechanism that some people use when they experience emotions that are too intense for them to regulate. It is crucial to get professional help as a matter of urgency when a child speaks of suicide, self-harm or makes threats towards themselves or other people.
4. Temper Tantrums
It is not unusual for children to have temper tantrums when they are beginning to learn how to self-regulate their emotions. An inability to regulate emotions leads to a tantrum. Factors such as a child’s brain maturity and their surroundings (e.g. school, stressful environments) can have a significant impact on a child’s emotional regulation.
It has been well documented that children who might be described as of a sensitive disposition (e.g. children who have strong emotional reactions and who struggle to return to an equilibrium) can take longer to establish the emotional regulation techniques that they need to have in order to avoid having meltdowns as they experience feelings of being out-of-control.
Parents and caregivers can build skills that allow them to have a soothing effect on a child who is having a tantrum, and avoid doing things which make the tantrum worse. In addition, children can learn techniques to implement once they begin to feel overwhelmed, so as to not “freak out”. Dealing with tantrums requires a large dose of patience and a collaborative approach.
Children who have an excessive amount of tantrums that last significantly longer than other children’s tantrums, or who become violent (to others or themselves) during tantrums likely need professional help. Likewise, parents who feel overwhelmed by their child’s tantrums might benefit from outside help. Counselors can help both parents and children to develop coping skills and emotion regulation techniques.
5. Argumentative/Disrespectful Attitude
Children who unexpectedly start being belligerent and discourteous toward authority are likely to be finding it difficult to cope with their emotions. It may be that the child feels unsettled or unbalanced, and their behavior is a means of exerting some kind of control.
Another reason for this type of behavior may be that the child is experiencing depression or anxiety. It can also be a case of pushing the limits or tying in impress friends.
6. Ignoring Others
Whilst in some cases ignoring people can be attributed to belligerence, this behavior may also suggest that there is a deeper lying cause. For instance, a sign of inattentive ADHD is not listening; instead of focusing on what is being said to them, a child with ADHD may experience wandering thoughts.
The child may have an active imagination and find it hard to stay present, getting lost in their imaginings. If ADHD is the cause of the problem of ignoring others, it is possible for children to be taught ways of managing their difficulties with concentration.
A child that suddenly starts to ignore others, preferring to lose themselves in their own world, may be experiencing overwhelming emotions. They may find it difficult or even impossible to explain their feelings, and it becomes easier to withdraw into themselves.
Regardless of the cause, it is advisable to ask for help when a child’s ignoring behavior becomes a habit.
7. School Refusal
It is wrong to assume that when a child refuses to go to school it is because of a simple dislike of school or education. This may indeed be the case, but school refusal can also be an indicator that something more serious is at work, particularly if the child suddenly begins to refuse to go to school, has uncharacteristic meltdowns before school, or starts complaining about physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches.
It is a good idea to ask yourself what the child’s behavior is telling you. Children may be apprehensive about school for a number of reasons. Some children have anxieties related to being separated from their caregiver or fear that their caregiver will die or in some other way abandon them.
In other cases, children may fear school because they are being bullied, or because they have a learning disability or processing disorder that makes learning a stressful and anxiety-provoking challenge.
Children who suffer from depression and anxiety also struggle with school and may refuse to go to school. It is advisable to seek help from a counselor who can help to get to the root of the school refusal and equip the child with skills to overcome the problem.
8. Lack of Motivation
It is unfair to dismiss children who struggle with motivation as being ‘lazy’. These children may have underlying issues that are affecting them on a number of levels. For instance, poor levels of motivation is a common sign of depression. It may well be that the child is afraid of failure, or not meeting up to standards (e.g. those set by an older sibling). Anxiety may also cause difficulties with motivation.
9. Substance Use
Because substance use is both obvious and problematic, it is not something that should be ignored. Although substance use is traditionally considered to be an adult or teenage problem, it can start in childhood.
It is important to uncover the underlying reasons why a child feels the need to use substances – for example, is it as a means of coping? Or is it because of peer pressure from friends?
Whatever the reason behind the substance use, it is vital that there is intervention before there are serious and negative consequences.
10. Early Sexualized Behavior
Children who start to exhibit sexualized behavior before puberty are showing indicators of something more serious underlying the behavior. It is necessary to investigate the causes of the behavior and to evaluate the kinds of sexual materials that they may have had access to. Specially trained professionals can help to deal with this kind of behavior.
What to Do About Child Behavior Problems
To address problematic behaviors, you need to understand the root cause. Only then are you able to intervene in a way that will allow the child to develop healthy coping mechanisms. It is important to remember that every problem behavior has a cause rather than simply focusing on the behavior as a problem.
The starting point for addressing the behavior is to look beyond the surface and ask yourself questions that will help you uncover the root cause. For example, “What is this behavior really about? Is my daughter anxious because of difficulties with her friends? Is my son acting out because of the atmosphere at home? Does my child have issues with regulating overwhelming emotions?”
Remember that what we class as problem behavior can be classed as an adaptive reaction in children when they simply do not know how to deal with a difficult situation (Siegel & Bryson, 2014).
Take this example: a child pretends to be in pain because she has a test that she is sure she will fail. Her anxiety about the situation leaves her unable to cope with the intense feelings, and avoidance seems her only option. The more she relies on avoidance, the bigger her anxiety and the bigger the problem. She avoids school out of fear, not out of laziness.
If, as adults, we sometimes resort to dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as over-eating when upset or over-reacting to someone’s comment, then it stands to reason that children, who have neither the brain maturity nor coping resources that adults have, will also exhibit problem behaviors.
It would be wrong for adults to expect children to be able to cope with all situations and not resort to problematic behaviors. Even so, problem behaviors should not be ignored. Instead, find out what skills the child needs to develop and teach them the techniques.
It is helpful to evaluate what purpose the behavior serves for the child. This facilitates an understanding of what is really happening, rather than simply seeing the negatives. A counselor with an understanding of child brain development can teach both you and your child the skills necessary to promote healthy emotion regulation.
When to Seek Help
It is important to seek professional advice when a child conveys a desire to hurt himself or herself or someone else. Similarly, the help of a counselor should be sought when a behavioral problem is having a consistently negative impact on a child’s grades or friendships, or when there is a consistent increase in the problematic behavior.
It is not unusual for parents and caregivers to be overwhelmed by their child’s problem behaviors. It can be beneficial to gain an understanding of new or different techniques to help both you and your child. Help is just an email or a call away.
Huebner, D., & Matthews, B. What to do when you worry too much: A kids’ guide to overcoming problems with anxiety. Washington, D.C.: Magination Press, 2005.
Huebner, D., & Matthews, B. What to do when your temper flares: A kids’ guide to overcoming problems with anger. Washington, D.C.: Magination Press, 2007.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Delacorte Press, 2011.
Siegel, D.J., & Bryson, T.P. The yes brain: How to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child. New York: Bantam Books, 2014.
Siegel, D.J., & Bryson, T.P. No-drama discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Bantam Books, 2014.
Brady, Carol, PhD., The Truth About Your Child’s Lies. https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/what-to-do-when-your-child-lies/, Retrieved 9/9/18.
“Pouting,” courtesy of martakoton, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Egg Stealer”, Courtesy of Andrew Poynton, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Child with Arms Crossed”, Courtesy of Chinh Le Duc, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Smoke with Me”, Courtesy of Smoke & Vibe, Unsplash.com; CC0 License