How to understand and manage your child’s behavioural problems at home.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and Based on a text by Dr Dan Rutherford
Most parents anticipate the ‘terrible twos’ when your toddler suddenly starts to flex their independence muscles and play up. But what if your kid hasn’t grown out of this difficult phase? Lots of parents worry about their children’s active, noisy behaviour and tantrums, but sometimes it can be hard to work out whether it’s perfectly normal or the sign of a behavioural disorder.
We look at common behavioural traits in children so you know when to relax and when to worry:
Tantrums in children
Tantrums are not usually anything to worry about. They’re a way of expressing frustration, and most children have them in their early years (from age one to four).
Temper tantrums can be loud and violent, and it’s normal to find them upsetting or embarrassing. Sometimes, if you can tell your child is about to have a tantrum, you may be able to distract him or her by offering something to look at or a favourite toy.
Excitability in children
Young children, especially those aged five and below, are often energetic, noisy and excitable. Usually this liveliness is quite normal.
Sometimes, active and noisy children can be quite a handful: talking all the time, not doing as they’re told and seeming restless. This kind of overactive behaviour is more usual among boys. Although this can be hard to deal with, it’s only when a child’s behaviour is extreme that it suggests a behavioural disorder.
Naughtiness in children
All children exhibit naughty behaviour: scribbling on walls, fighting with siblings, cheekiness and ignoring requests are all part and parcel of growing up. Sometimes this behaviour is isolated to one-off incidents, or it may be a phase your child is going through.
Whether naughtiness is a problem depends on how long it’s been going on, how severe it is and when it happens.
Naughty behaviour may be caused by your child testing your reaction to find out what’s allowed or triggered by a change in his or her environment (eg worries about school). It may be down to jealousy of a sibling or it may be a way to attract your attention.
Whether naughtiness is a problem depends on how long it’s been going on, how severe it is and when it happens. Constant hostility, defiance and disobedience can be a sign your child suffers from oppositional defiant disorder or, more seriously, conduct disorder.
What affects a child’s behaviour?
Many different things have an impact on a child’s behaviour, including the following:
- Genes and behaviour in children
Some children are naturally more lively and excitable than others with characteristics which ‘run in the family’. They may be easily distracted and enjoy company, rather than spending time on their own. Although boisterous, you’ll usually be able to control their behaviour.
- School and behaviour in children
You may notice a change in your child’s behaviour when he or she starts school. If your child has problems learning things or is slower in picking things up, this can reduce self-confidence and esteem and affect his or her behaviour. Reading problems can also make it hard to complete tasks or follow instructions.
- Parental behaviour
Problems are a part of everyday life. But if you’re unhappy and absorbed in dealing with them, it will affect the time you spend with your child. To counter this, your child may try to attract attention through noisy or challenging behaviour. Attracting parental attention by challenging behaviour may be seen by the child as better than receiving minimal or no attention at all!
If it isn’t clear to your child what is and isn’t allowed, it can result in difficult behaviour.
If it isn’t clear to your child what is and isn’t allowed, it can result in difficult behaviour. This is because rules let your child know you don’t like a certain type of conduct. Clear, consistent rules and ‘limit setting’ will help your child learn to control his or her own behaviour. So if you’re a two-parent family, you and your partner need to agree on the boundaries.
Some children can be quite skilful at manipulating parents who aren’t consistent as a couple in the way they manage behaviour. If you’re a working parent, it’s also something that needs discussing with your child’s carers.
- Sensitivity to food and behaviour in children
There’s no doubt food can affect the way we feel. You may notice certain foods affect your child’s behaviour. This might include for example food or drink with significant quantities of colourants or additives or artificial sweeteners.
If they are identified as resulting in an increase in hyperactivity or challenging behaviour then they should sensibly be avoided. They are not usually the ‘health option’ either, and alternative drinks and snacks are available, particularly fruit, milk and of course water!
If you’re concerned about your child’s diet, you should ask your GP or a dietician for advice. All children need a healthy balanced diet.
Medicine and behaviour in children
Medicines can also affect the behaviour of some children:
- Asthma medication: some asthma medicationmay sometimes make a child hyperactive, irritable or unable to sleep for a short time.
- Travel sickness medicines: and antihistamineshave the potential to make children either drowsy or overactive.
- Vaccinations: children may feel irritable following vaccines or if a medicine has caused a headache.
- Epilepsy: medications prescribed for the control of epilepsymay also affect behaviour.
If you think any medicine is making your child behave differently, talk to your GP. It may be that your child’s behaviour is unrelated to the medicine. But if it is, your GP may be able to suggest an alternative treatment.
Medical problems and behaviour in children
Certain medical conditions can affect your child’s behaviour:
- Epileptic seizures: this can cause a child to become drowsy, impairing their attention. Epilepsy can also predispose to unusual or challenging behaviour and lead to abnormal perceptions.
- Hearing problems: such as deafness or glue ear, can make it hard for a child to follow instructions. Sometimes, not hearing what’s been said can be mistaken for not doing what you’re told.
- Tourette’s syndrome: this involves repetitive, involuntary jerking movements of the face or body (motor tics) and sudden outbursts of noise or swearing (vocal tics). Repetitive obsessive behaviour and problems with anger control are sometimes seen.
- Autism and Asperger’s syndrome: these conditions are associated with difficulties in verbal and non verbal communication , social skills, imagination and obsessive preoccupations.
- Depression: mental healthand anxiety disorders can cause poor concentration, irritability and restlessness.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): this is a medical condition that should only be diagnosed by a specialist. Parents often say their children are hyperactive, but ADHD is more than just boisterous behaviour. Characteristic features of ADHD include difficulties with hyperactive and impulsive behaviours and inattention.
Difficult behaviour in children coping tips
If your kid keeps playing up, try the following coping strategies:
When your child has a tantrum, the best thing to do is to stay calm. This can be very testing, especially if the tantrum takes place in public. Try to ignore the tantrum, because if you react or give in to what your child wants, he or she will think throwing a tantrum is a good way to get their own way.
When your child starts to calm down and behave better, remember to praise the good behaviour. This will help to stop your child starting the tantrum again and help to demonstrate the type of behaviour you approve of.
If your child is excitable and you’d like to get him or her to calm down, demonstrate some different ways to spend some quiet time, eg drawing, reading or making something.
You could also plan some quiet time during each day, as well as a chance to run around and be noisy if they are full of beans.
When your child spends time playing quietly, remember to praise him/her for doing it and admire what they draws or makes in that time.
Although you can’t expect your child to be well behaved all the time, consistency in discipline, praise for good behaviour and giving attention can all improve conduct.
Getting help for difficult behaviour
If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, talk to your GP or health visitor. They may be able to advise you about ways to improve tantrums etc. Health visitors, especially, are used to dealing with such problems.
Your GP will be able to rule out many of the medical causes for behavioural problems.
Your GP will be able to rule out many of the medical causes for behavioural problems. Depending on the nature of your child’s difficulty, she may decide to refer your child to a specialist.
Talking to and getting advice from other parents is also a great way to let off steam and combat isolation if your child is seen as naughty or difficult.
Further help and support
For additional support, try one of the following resources:
- Family Lives:helping parents to deal with the changes that are a part of family life.
- NSPCC: a children’s charity, preventing abuse and helping those affected to recover.
- Childline: helping children and young people with any issue they might be facing.
- The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
- YoungMinds: committed to improving children’s wellbeing and mental health.