How to Deal With Behavioral "Problems" in Children

Kathy Wu, PhD on Apr 21, 2023 in Relationship and Family

As a child psychologist who specializes in helping children with tough behavioral presentations, here are some really common questions that I get from stressed out parents.

1. What are some of the most common behavior problems in children?

Some of the most common behavioral issues experienced by children stem from difficulties regulating attention, impulses, and emotions. These challenges often manifest in the form of opposition to rules, not seeming to be able to pay attention or listen, interpersonal conflicts with peers and adults, and difficulties expressing emotions in a safe manner.

2. How do you help a child whose behavior is completely out of control?

One helpful rule of thumb to remember when seeing a child whose behavior is “out of control” or disruptive is to separate the behavior from the child, the person. The behavior is usually the child’s way to show others their unmet needs and not a statement of disrespectful or antisocial intentions. Give the child and yourself some time to calm down before providing your child a listening ear and support. Praise the child for expressing their feelings and then enlist them in problem-solving with you. After the current problem is resolved, establish the reasonable consequence for rule-breaking/disruptive behavior and follow through on implementing the punishment immediately. This way, the child gets a sense of control, feels heard, understands how to get attention in a more effective way, and learns how to problem solve on their own in the future.

3. How can parents and guardians better meet the social/emotional needs of children?

Parents and guardians can better meet the social/emotional needs of children in a number of ways. First, caregivers can model for their child ways to safely express and regulate their emotions during times of stress. Parents and guardians can also help their children build their toolbox for problem solving interpersonal conflicts. Sit down with them after a conflict has resolved and reflect on lessons learned and what to do if something similar happens again. Finally, go back to the basics of helping children build empathy and social awareness. This can come in the form of taking care of a pet or plant, pitching in with housework, and participating in community events.

4. What can parents and guardians do to manage their own mental health while caring for a child with behavior problems?

Stressed out parents need to reach out for support as soon as possible — not tomorrow, but today. They have to realize that they are not terrible parents and that everyone else has likely gone through or will go through the same challenges with their children. They have to not go at it alone and be willing to ask for and accept help. Help can come in the form of informal parent support groups, family members, neighbors, educations, and therapists. Parents also need to change their self-critical views of their parenting and stop comparing themselves to anyone else.

Kathy Wu is a Psychologist in Philadelphia, PA.

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