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Common Questions about Behavior Problems in Children

How can I distinguish between normal and abnormal behavior?

  • The difference between normal and abnormal behavior is not always clear.
  • Children vary greatly in their temperament, development and behaviors.
  • What is normal for one child may not be normal for another.
  • Remember, it is normal for young children to have occasional outbursts.

“Normal” behavior depends on a number of factors, which include:

  • a child’s level of development
  • the context in which the behavior occurs
  • the child’s family values and expectations
  • the cultural and social background

“Abnormal” behavior may include:

  • actions harmful to the physical, emotional, or social well-being of the child, family members or others
  • behavior interfering with the child’s intellectual development
  • behavior forbidden by law, ethics, religion, or aggressive or destructive behavior (overt racism/prejudice, stealing)

Why are some children disobedient?

There are a variety of reasons why children act disobediently, including:

  • unrealistic expectations of parents
  • temperament of the child
  • school problems
  • family stress
  • conflicts between parents

Through his behavior, a child may be trying to communicate messages. (“That’s too hard for me,” I’m afraid of failure,” “I need you,” etc.). In many situations, a child is really seeking attention from his parents. He learns what kinds of behavior will get him this attention, whether it is positive or negative.

What strategies can I use to help my child be well-behaved?

  • Begin laying the groundwork for good behavior from the time your child is born.
  • Set firm, consistent limits to help the child understand what you expect.
  • Make sure every person who cares for the child agrees on the rules the child is expected to observe.
  • When a rule is broken, reprimand the child immediately so he/she understands exactly what he/she has done wrong.
  • Help your child find ways to handle his/her anger without resorting to violence (such as by saying "no" in a firm voice or finding compromises).
  • Encourage the child to express his/her feelings through words.
  • Control your own temper to teach your child nonviolence.
  • If punishment is needed, do not feel guilty, and more importantly, do not apologize. This could send mixed messages to the child.
  • Remember that telling your child how to behave is important, but demonstrating by example is most effective.

What is the difference between discipline and punishment?


  • includes praise and instruction for the child on how to control his/her behavior
  • shows children positive alternatives and an opportunity to see how their actions affect others
  • teaches children to share and cooperate, to learn to handle their anger and to feel successful and in-control of themselves
  • teaches children to live in a safe, civilized and harmonious manner with themselves and others
  • should take place all the time, not just when children misbehave


  • is negative
  • is an unpleasant consequence for misbehavior
  • only teaches children what not to do
  • controls children through fear and threats

What are some tips for effectively disciplining my child?

  • Be aware of your child’s abilities and limitations.
    Children develop at different rates and have different strengths and weaknesses.
  • Remember that children do what “works.”
    Avoid reinforcing the wrong kinds of behavior, even by just giving it your attention.
  • Work towards consistency.
    Try to make sure that your goals, rules and approaches to discipline stay the same from day to day. Children find frequent changes confusing and may resort to testing limits just to find out what the limits are.
  • Think before you speak and pay attention to your child’s feelings.
    If you can figure out why your child is misbehaving, you are one step closer to solving the problem. Let your child know that you understand him/her.
  • Learn to see mistakesincluding your ownas opportunities to grow.
    If you do not handle a situation well the first time, don't despair. Figure out what you could have done differently, and do it the next time.

Can a child be too well-behaved?

  • Children who are always very well-behaved may be overly anxious to please, very needy of attention, love and approval, or fearful of rejection.
  • Sometimes these children are attempting to care for, defend or protect a parent by being very well-behaved.
  • They may be overly cautious, very shy, overprotected, or feel insecure and incompetent.

What external forces affect the behavior of children?

  • Reduced parental time. Estimates indicate that parents spend 10-15 fewer hours with their children than they did in the 1960s.
  • The challenge of the media. The increase in the media presence in children’s lives has meant easier access to vast amounts of information and entertainment, bringing with it the potential for negative influences.
  • The challenge of overindulgence. When parents overindulge their children with either material possessions, or with a lack of clear behavior boundaries and structure, they are depriving their children of the ability to learn what is acceptable and responsible behavior.

Where can I turn for professional help concerning my child’s behavior?

Call your child’s pediatrician.