"Should I be concerned about my child's extreme behavior?"


Every child "acts out" at times. Knowing when to seek help can be confusing.

Children learn appropriate behaviors and coping skills over time – and in a several important ways. Children learn by watching and modeling the behavior of those around them. Keep in mind, they are like sponges and will soak up whatever they are exposed to, good or bad. They learn by receiving praise and positive attention for specific behaviors. And, perhaps most importantly, they learn by trial-and-error. Learning that actions have consequences empowers children to make better choices. No two children are wired the same way – or will respond the same way at any given time. What children do have in common is the ability to learn acceptable behaviors and ways to act socially appropriately. Keep in mind that every child has difficulties with behavior at times.

General guidelines for normally developing children:

  • Around age 1, some infants may show fear or cry when parents leave.
  • At 18 months, some toddlers may have temper tantrums or be clingy with a parent.
  • At age 2, they are learning the word "no" and may do what they are told NOT to do.
  • By age 3, they may be able to separate more easily from their parents, but may get upset with big changes.

How to help your child develop appropriate behaviors:

  • Children do best with structure, schedules and routines
  • Set clear rules for acceptable behaviors and language from your child
  • Be direct with requests and avoid asking questions
  • When your child is doing a behavior you don't want, teach them one you do want
  • Give one direction at a time to your child, and keep it simple
  • Use lots of positive reinforcement AND name the positive behavior
  • Ignore minor misbehavior that is used to try to get your attention
  • Give your child age appropriate small chores and responsibilities

When to be concerned:

  • If there are behavior problems AND other delays (language, social)
  • Behavior is much worse than expected for his/her age; see Milestones
  • Frequent reports of serious behavior in several settings (home and school)
  • The behavior is causing extreme stress in the family, school or peer relations
  • Significant destruction to self, others, or property

What to do if you are concerned:

  • If your child threatens significant harm to self or others, call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room.
  • If there is not a crisis, but you have concerns, contact your pediatrician
  • Talk with a counselor or therapist about parenting strategies to help your child