Among the many parts of my job as a psychologist who specializes in working with kids is to answer these two very common question from parents and teachers.

Is THIS normal??

or…

Should she see a counselor?

Upon hearing these questions, there are always a few follow-up questions that I ask that would help me determine whether it is typically developing behavior or if it is outside the range of what we would expect to see from a child of that age.

So the first follow-up question is: Does this problem behavior come up in more than one setting?

In other words, is the child having similar problem behavior, of similar severity at home, school, and within the community? Is he angry and aggressive at school? AND at home? AND when you take him to the store? AND when you take him to church?

At the heart of this question is the determination of whether the problem is within the child or within the environment. 

If the child is having problems everywhere, and multiple people in his life are saying he is hard to manage or is really struggling, then it might be time to seek help.

But, if he is only having problems in one part of his life, then it might be less about him and more about the environment not being able to support him well enough for him to maintain appropriate behavior. My first line of the defense in this case would be to increase the motivation at home to see if the child can control his behavior. For instance, you could try having a point system for good behavior throughout the day to see if that would motivate him to maintain appropriate behavior.

If a child can maintain appropriate behavior at school, but then loses his mind when he is at home…it MAY not be a child problem. This happens frequently for kids who may have some difficulties with impulsivity/hyperactivity or anxiety. They work really hard all day to keep it together at school, and then simply cannot maintain that same level of positive behavior at home. That doesn’t necessarily mean he needs a counselor. It may mean he needs a 30-45 minute break after school to regain composure after a hard day of keeping his behavior under control all day.

The second follow-up question is: Is the behavior impeding her learning?

If a child’s challenging behavior is negatively impacting her learning, then we want to try to get teachers and parents together to come up with a behavior plan fairly quickly.  All of the academic and social skills in school build upon one another. In other words, if they miss critical academic lessons during the early elementary years because of impulsivity or distractibility, they may be confused about later concepts that build upon that knowledge she was supposed to gain earlier in her academic career. Working as a team, parents and teachers can help the child get back on track quickly so she doesn’t fall behind. If the problems persist, seeking help may be important.

The final follow-up question is: Is the problem behavior harming the child or anyone around him/her?

Obviously, if the child is hurting people physically, it is a problem. How much of a problem will depend on the severity of physical harm and the frequency at which it occurs.

I always pose this question because sometimes problem behaviors from our kids are simply annoying or frustrating, but they aren’t really harming anyone. Some parents will try to make the argument that it is “harming” the child’s relationships emotionally — but if you are concerned about that, ask yourself… does he still have friends?  If yes, then it is probably just annoying and frustrating to us and only minimally annoying and frustrating to other children.

The moral of the story here – If you answer NO to these questions, then your child is probably doing okay. Allow him or her to try to work through it on their own. Children are resilient. If they can “keep it together” at home, at school, and in the community – they don’t need a therapist. Allow them to develop their own coping strategies until their behavior tells you that they can’t do it on their own anymore. At that point, they will start to have more problems and that may be your signal to seek professional help. And in the meantime, be supportive, ask them if they need anything, and take time to listen. Make your words matter and allow theirs to matter, too.

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