Is my child behaving normally?
Consider the typical behavior for your child’s developmental stage
It is common for parents to wonder whether their child’s behavior is normal or if it indicates an emotional or mental health problem. Some problems — substance abuse, self-harm or aggression — are more obvious than others such as anxiety, depression or learning challenges.
When considering a child’s mental health, it’s critical to keep their world in perspective. Kids live in a world largely out of their control. They don’t get to select their school, teacher, or their home or family. Sometimes a worrisome behavior is a reaction to what is going on around them and does not always mean the child has a mental health disorder.
There are three guidelines that help determine childhood mental health:
- Determine the level of impairment caused by the child’s behavior
While this varies by child and family, parents must evaluate how disruptive their child’s behavior is, and if it’s upsetting normal development. For instance, if a younger child is anxious when leaving a parent and responds well to various soothing techniques, they are likely experiencing an ordinary developmental behavior. However, if the child’s behavior keeps them from participating in activities, or causes a parent to be chronically late for work or they continue the behavior as they age, the child likely needs help.
- Be heard
Sometimes parents have a feeling something isn’t right with their child and raise the concern with their pediatrician. Many times parents want to confirm certain behaviors are normal. Parents frequently identify behavioral and learning disabilities through observation. They are the experts, and if they have a feeling that something isn’t right, it should be taken seriously.
- Always check it out
The first step in identifying a potential behavior issue is to check in with family members, friends and your child’s school. Talking about age-appropriate behavior with others and comparing how your child is acting to others helps determine if your child needs help. For example, depression is a common concern for parents of teens. Adolescence is a time of typical moodiness, but depression is not normal. It’s important to look at your child’s behavior compared to the wide range of typical behaviors for their developmental stage.
If your child stays in their room constantly, but still participates in activities with friends, that’s a good sign there isn’t a severe problem. But if they used to love playing soccer and now refuse to join the team or won’t go out with friends that could indicate depression or another problem. Teachers can share how your child acts in school — whether they participate as usual, joke with friends at lunch or are sullen and distant. Peer-related activities are the last to suffer. However, a child who goes out with friends may still need help.
Julie Balaban, MD, leads the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s (CHaD’s) Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Team and serves as Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, Section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.