Behavior Problems of Children

It is generally recognized that all children go through periods of emotional and behavior difficulty. Indeed, data from the California Growth Study show that both boys and girls average five to six problems at any given time during the preschool and elementary-school years. The prevalence of these behavior difficulties declines with age for school-age children. Thus, younger children, ages 6 through 8, by far exceed older children, ages 9 through 12, in the number of behavior deviations. Moreover, boys have a higher incidence of behavior problems than do girls. Also noteworthy is the finding that there seems to be very little difference in the amount of problem behaviors exhibited by only children and children with siblings.

Although common, the problems of normal children should not be considered unimportant by parents and therefore left to self-resolution. These problems need to be confronted and effectively resolved since neglect or mismanagement can lead to more serious difficulties. Parents tend to find rationalizations for avoiding taking any action when their child has a behavior problem.

The most common rationalizations are:
1) The problem is being exaggerated and is actually much milder than the person who is pressuring the parents to seek help believes it to be.
2) It will go away with time.
3) Taking action might in some way damage the child's sensitive nature or paradoxically make matters worse by "making the child think about it more".
4) The child "by nature" is destined to have the problem and nothing can be done.

Normal vs Abnormal Behavior

When is a child's behavior problem so severe or abnormal that professional help is needed? The difference between normal and abnormal behaviors is one of degree, that is, how often and how frequently does the behavior cause a problem for the child, the parents, and/or the community. If the discomfort to the child and/or others is quite frequent or very severe in nature then professional counseling or therapy for the child and family may be warranted.

The more misbehaviors the child exhibits, the less age-appropriate the behavior, the longer the duration of the problem, and the more resistant the child has been to efforts to help him, the more likely it is that professional assistance is required to resolve the problem.

Apart from the severity, persistence, and resistance to change of a problem, there are certain signs to look for which indicate that a child is experiencing serious psychological difficulties:
1) Prolonged, constant anxiety, apprehension, or fear which is not proportionate to reality.
2) Signs of depression, such as a growing apathy and withdrawal from people.
3) An abrupt change in a child's mood or behavior so that he just does not seem to be himself anymore.
4) Sleep disturbances, such as sleeping too much, not being able to sleep enough, restless or nightmarish sleep, not being able to get to sleep, or waking up early.
5) Appetite disturbances, including loss of appetite, gain of weight due to excessive eating, or eating bizarre substances such as dirt or garbage.
6) Disturbances in sexual functioning, such as promiscuity, exposing oneself, or excessive masturbation.

The research indicates that when parents are concerned about a serious behavior problem in their children, they are most likely to turn to their extended family for advice and assistance. The second most frequent source of help they look to is local mental health professionals, school counselors, family doctors, and the clergy. These highly trained professionals are available locally, and parents should feel free to seek their services when problems arise or to answer questions. To obtain a therapist for their child, parents might want to ask the family doctors for a referral, or call the local mental health or family service association.

Parents as Helpers

There is a growing body of evidence indicating that parents, with a little guidance from professionals, can successfully resolve a number behaviors in their children. Unfortunately, a great deal of useful information, whether from the scientific literature or from the experiences of other parents, is not received by parents. Some child-rearing techniques for specific problems are potentially more effective than others, although much more research is needed. Among the more promising techniques from helping children with their problems are:

1. Rearranging the child's schedule.
2. Rewarding desired behaviors.
3. Reassuring the child by being supportive.
4. Ignoring misbehavior by paying absolutely no attention to it.

Since all children are individuals, there is no universal or simple formula for resolving their complex behavior problems. It seems wise, them, for parents to become skilled in a number of the more effective ways of helping children. In this way they are likely to increase the probability of their finding the approach that works best for their particular child.

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