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Child Behavior Problems: What’s Normal and What Isn’t

Identifying Normal Misbehavior Throughout the Years



While sibling rivalry is normal, significant aggression can be a sign of a more serious problem.

Emma Kim / Getty Images

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether your child’s behavior is within the range of normal misbehavior or if it might be something more serious. While some parents seem to be oblivious to serious red flags, other parents worry about behavior that is developmentally appropriate.

Identifying Normal Child Behavior

Kids aren’t meant to be robots. As they grow and learn, they will test limits. Kids will break household rules just to see how you'll react. If they receive a negative consequence for breaking the rules, it should deter the behavior from happening over and over again.

Identifying normal misbehavior requires knowledge about child development. What's normal for a preschooler's behaviors isn't normal for a teenager. Parents need to be aware of normal social, emotional and sexual development in each age group.

Warning Signs that a Behavior Could be a Serious Problem

Parents should grow concerned when children exhibit certain behavior problems that are outside the realm of normal misbehavior. Some warning signs that may indicate more serious behavior problems include:

  • Difficulty managing emotional outbursts – Children who can’t control their anger, frustration, or disappointment in socially and age-appropriate means may have a more serious problem. Although it is normal for preschoolers to have occasional temper tantrums, older children should have better control over their emotions.
  • Difficulty managing impulses - Impulse control should develop slowly over time. As a child grows older, it should become easier to manage impulses. Children who struggle to refrain from using physical aggression and children who can’t gain control over their verbal impulses may have a more serious behavior problem.
  • Behavior that does not respond to discipline – It’s normal for kids to repeat misbehavior from time to time to see if a parent will follow through with discipline, but it’s not normal for kids to continue to misbehave even when appropriate disciplinary action is taken.
  • Behavior that interferes with school – If your child’s behavior causes him to fall behind academically, it’s a sign of a more serious problem.
  • Behavior that interferes with social interaction – It’s normal for kids to have spats with peers, but if your child’s behavior interferes with his ability to maintain friendships, it’s likely a problem. Children should be able to maintain age appropriate behavior in social settings as well, such as the grocery store.
  • Self-injury or talk about suicide – Any child who bangs his head, burns himself or cuts himself should be evaluated by a mental health professional. It’s also important to have a child evaluated by a professional if there is any talk about suicide.
  • Sexualized behaviors that are not developmentally appropriate - Parents who are concerned about sexualized behavior problems should research the difference between normal and abnormal sexual development. Sexual behavior should never include any coercive behavior.
Read More: When to Seek Professional Help for a Child's Behavior Problems

Normal Behavior in Preschoolers (4 to 5 year olds)

As preschoolers try to gain more independence, it’s normal for them to argue and try to exercise their right to say, “no,” when you tell them to pick up their toys or stop banging loudly on the floor. Preschoolers also commonly vacillate between demanding they are a big kid who can get dressed on their own to demanding help because they can’t pick up their own toys.

Preschoolers may still exhibit the occasional tantrum but they should be gaining more control over their emotions and impulses compared to when they were toddlers. Any temper tantrums at this stage should be shorter and less intense. Preschoolers may exhibit occasional aggression as well but they should be learning more how to use their words instead.

Time out is a great discipline technique for preschoolers because at this age, they crave attention and removing them from the situation can be a big consequence. Ignoring mild misbehavior is another great discipline strategy for preschoolers.

Effective Discipline Strategies for 4-Year-Old Children
Effective Discipline Strategies for 5-Year-Old Children

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