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.

From the WebMD Archives

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.

Continued

Step 2: Be Honest

Before you take any steps to correct your child's behavior, you need to admit there's a problem. Taking the "My child is perfect -- someone else must be instigating these fights" attitude won't solve anything.

"Honestly appraise it and recognize that he does need an intervention, that it will not go away on its own and it's not a phase," Borba says.

Another thing you shouldn't do is put yourself in the middle of the situation to protect your child. "Parents sometimes throw themselves under the bus to keep the kid from having consequences from their behaviors, which makes the behaviors even worse," Kashurba says. In other words, if your child gets detention for being disruptive in class, let him serve it out. When your child consistently has to face the consequences of his actions, he'll eventually learn accountability.

Step 3: Get Help

Now that you've described the problem, find the right person to help you solve it. Start with someone you trust who already knows your child, like a teacher, school counselor, or your pediatrician.

If that person can't solve the problem, or the issue is so severe that it's threatening your child's safety or relationships, your doctor may refer you to a child psychologist or psychiatrist for further evaluation. That evaluation will help determine whether your child's actions are a sign of a behavioral problem or some underlying biological problem, such as ADHD or depression.

Step 4: Accentuate the Positive. Eliminate the Negative.

Being branded a "troublemaker" can be brutal to a child's self-esteem and self-image. "It has a disastrous effect on him, because the child begins to act the way he perceives that everyone thinks of him," Borba says. Constantly telling your child he's being bad will only perpetuate that perception.

Instead, as the old Johnny Mercer song goes, "accentuate the positive" and "eliminate the negative."

"You want to reinforce the positive behaviors, reinforce the pro-social behaviors, and reinforce the things you really want to see," Kashurba says. "You want to stay away from intentionally or inadvertently reinforcing the behaviors you don't want to see."

Continued

Eliminating the negative means letting your child know, in no uncertain terms, that you're not going to tolerate bad behaviors. That won't always be easy. You might have to walk out of the supermarket and leave your full shopping cart in the aisle to stop a tantrum, or take your child out of the theater in the middle of a movie when she won't quit hitting her brother. Expect at least some resistance. "Any time you change those behaviors, the child is going to test that," Kashurba says.

While you're discouraging bad behaviors, show your child the good behaviors you want him to emulate. For example, say, "Use your words instead of hitting." Practice that same good behavior over and over again, and praise him when he gets it right.

Don't try to solve every behavioral problem simultaneously -- just focus on one at a time.

"Zero in on only that behavior over and over and over again. If you focus on too many behaviors at once you'll never get the change," Borba says.

Be patient. It can take about three weeks of constant repetition before you start seeing results. "You'll see a slow, gradual change in baby steps where the old behavior stops and the new behavior kicks in," Borba says. "Don't be frustrated. It's tough."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 09, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

Michele Borba, EdD, parenting expert; educational psychologist; author, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Glenn Kashurba, MD, board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, Somerset, Pa.

Marsh, H. Journal of Educational Psychology, June 2001; vol 93: pp 411-419.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: "Discipline."

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