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Health & Parenting

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Is My Child a Troublemaker?

Learn how to tell whether a child's bad behavior is just typical kid stuff or something more -- and what to do about it.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's the call every parent dreads.

On the other end of the line is the school principal or teacher, informing you that your child has just committed one of the following acts:

(A) Fighting

(B) Lying

(C) Bullying

(D) Disrupting class

(E) All of the above

Any of these behaviors can be a normal part of the kid repertoire, but if they stick around long enough, eventually your child can get branded a "troublemaker." That can be a hard label to shake.

So how do you know whether your child is just going through a normal kid phase or he's a true troublemaker? Your first step is to investigate the behaviors.

Step 1: Play Detective

Start by doing a little digging. Look closely at your child’s actions and the factors that might be driving them.

When looking at the behaviors, consider your child's developmental stage.

"One part of good parenting is to understand child development 101. Look [at] what's appropriate for your kid at his age level," says Michele Borba, EdD, parenting expert, educational psychologist, and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

"At a specific time a specific behavior may not be inappropriate," says Glenn Kashurba, MD, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in Somerset, Pa. For example, it's pretty normal for a 3-year-old to throw a tantrum, but if your 16-year-old does the same, there's usually a problem.

Then look at the behavior itself.

"Do what I call a rewind," Borba advises. "What does the behavior actually look like? Because the more you can describe it, the more you can understand why he's actually using it."

Your rewind should include the following questions:

  • How long has the behavior been going on? Is this the first time your child has lied, bullied, or disrupted class, or are you seeing an ongoing pattern?
  • Is the behavior changing? Is it getting better? Is it getting worse? Some kids have a rough start at a new school or in the beginning of a new year, but they gradually ease into it and their behavior improves. Any behavior that's getting worse over time is cause for concern.
  • Where is the behavior occurring? Is it just at school, or at home and friends' houses as well? Is it occurring for your benefit only, or does your child treat her grandparents, teachers, and friends the same way? "If they're having [the problem] in all areas of their life, that suggests that it's a more pervasive problem," Kashurba says.
  • How severe is the behavior? Is your child getting into arguments with other kids, or is she physically pushing them? If there are physical altercations, how serious are they? "Kids' fights probably shouldn't be much more than a push-shove kind of thing," Kashurba says. "If you've got a 7-year-old who's just whaling on somebody with multiple punches, that's usually indicative of problems with anger control."
  • What else is going on in your child's life? Often, bad behavior is a way for kids to act out when they can't handle stresses in their lives, such as a move or divorce. It also could be a warning sign of an underlying problem, like they're having trouble in school, playing too many violent video games, or not getting enough sleep. Also look for less obvious but serious issues, like possible bullying at school or signs of abuse. "Look for the things that the kid might not be talking about, or that you might not be aware, as a parent, might be going on," Kashurba says. "Kids can cover up their depression and anger with acting out behaviors."

While doing your investigative work, talk to your child's teachers, coaches, scout leader, and anyone else who sees him on a regular basis. Finally, sit down with the most important person in the equation: your child. Ask whether he's struggling with any issues and whether he realizes that his behavior is a problem.

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