Warning Signs of Normal and Abnormal Child Behavior

Child behavior warning signs
Illustration by Hugo Lin. © Verywell, 2018. 

Children are supposed to break the rules sometimes. Testing limits is how they learn about themselves and the world. The consequences you give them teach important life lessons.

Sometimes, however, behavior problems can be a sign of a more serious issue. When it comes to differentiating between normal and abnormal behavior problems, it's important to know a bit about child development. What's normal for a preschooler isn't normal for a teenager.

Normal Preschool Behavior

As preschoolers seek independence, it’s normal for them to argue and exercise their right to say “no.” They commonly vacillate between demanding they are a big kid who can do everything on their own, to using baby talk to declare they need help with a simple task.

Preschoolers may 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 than the toddler years.

Children of ages 4 and 5 may exhibit some minor aggression, but they should be learning how to use their words instead of violence.

Normal Behavior for School-Age Kids

As grade school kids take on more responsibility, they often want more freedom than they can handle. They will likely require a fair amount of guidance when it comes to doing chores, completing their homework and taking care of their hygiene. As they begin to solve problems on their own and try new activities, they may struggle to deal with failure.

Grade schoolers usually need a little help in dealing with uncomfortable emotions, like frustration and anxiety, and it's common for them to lack verbal impulse control.

Normal Behavior for Tweens

When kids hit the tween years, their budding independence often comes across in their attitude toward their parents. It’s normal for tweens to be mildly oppositional and argumentative as they begin to try to separate from their parents.

Tweens may struggle with social skills and they may report frequent disagreements with friends. They also tend to lack the ability to recognize the long-term consequences of their behavior. Tweens need positive attention to reinforce their good behavior during these awkward years.

Focus on teaching your child life skills, like how to wash the dishes, as well as social skills, like how to greet a new person. Look for teachable moments and turn your child's mistakes into learning opportunities.

Normal Behavior for Teens

Teens often like to think they are adults, but they still need help making healthy decisions. Be prepared to deal with a variety of phases your teen may enter as they try to determine who they are as an individual. For instance, it’s common for teens to change social groups or test out new hairstyles or clothing styles as they try to establish their identity. 

Teenagers should have improved self-discipline when it comes to doing their homework or getting their chores done on time. They may still be rather moody and some mild non-compliance and defiance are normal. 

Minor rebellion is also normal as teens often want to show their parents they can have control over their own lives. As long as your teen lives under your roof, it's important to establish clear rules and follow through with consequences.

When to Worry

These general warning signs may indicate more serious behavior problems, especially when they are viewed in comparison to what is developmentally appropriate. If you have concerns about your child's behavior, talk to your child’s doctor. They can help you determine whether your child's behavior is normal or whether a referral to a specialist is needed.

Difficulty Managing Emotions

Although it is normal for preschoolers to have occasional temper tantrums, older children should be able to cope with their feelings in a socially appropriate manner. If your child can’t control their anger, frustration, or disappointment in an age-appropriate manner, they could have an underlying emotional problem.

Poor Impulse Control

Impulse control develops slowly over time. Children who become aggressive after they begin school, or children who yell at their teacher as teens, likely need help developing better skills.

Failure to Respond to Discipline

It’s normal for kids to repeat their mistakes from time to time to see if a parent will follow through with discipline. But it’s not normal for a child to exhibit the same behavior repeatedly if you're applying consistent discipline. If your child continues to exhibit the same misbehavior regardless of the consequences, it could be a problem such as oppositional defiance disorder.

Struggles in School

Behavior that interferes with school is not something that should be ignored. This misbehavior may indicate an underlying behavior disorder or learning disability. Getting sent out of class, getting into fights at recess, and difficulty staying on task are all potential warning signs.

Trouble With Social Interactions

When behavior interferes with social interaction, this is a cause for concern. It’s normal for kids to have spats with peers, but if your child’s behavior prevents them from having friends, that's a problem. Children should be able to develop and maintain healthy relationships with their peers.

Sexualized Behavior

Sexualized behaviors that are not developmentally appropriate are a warning sign, often of exposure to trauma or sexual abuse. It's normal for kids to be curious about the opposite sex and to want to know where babies come from. But sexualized behavior should never be coercive, at any age.

Self-Injury

Anytime anyone (adult or child) engages in self-injury, you need to pay attention. Banging their head, burning themselves, or cutting themselves are all behaviors that need to 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.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Minor behavior problems can often be addressed by changing your discipline strategy. Look for ways to make discipline more effective. For example, if you’ve been grounding your child for not doing their homework, try offering a positive consequence that motivates them to do their work. More serious behavior problems require professional help. Ask your family doctor or a school counselor for a referral.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Developmental milestones: 4 to 5 year olds. Updated November 2, 2009.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to understand your child's temperament. Updated November 2, 2009.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Stages of adolescence. Updated March 28, 2019.

  4. Brown RC, Plener PL. Non-suicidal self-injury in adolescence. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017;19(3):20. doi:10.1007/s11920-017-0767-9

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