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Acting their age
Know when children's behaviors are typical - and when they may need help


May 2016

One evening, when my oldest son was barely 3 years old, he decided he wasnít ready to come in for the night. He hung from the front doorknob in protest, yelling "outside!" over and over again. I was a new parent and had read to ignore tantrums ó "let it play out" was the advice. Well, he went on for 45 minutes. On one hand, I was admittedly proud of his dedication, but on the other, I was a little worried it might not be normal behavior.

From the terrible twos to moody teenage years, most children have behavioral issues at one time or another. The question is, how do you know if it is just a stage and a healthy part of growing up or if it is the sign of something more serious?

According to Dr. Mark Siegel, medical director of child and adolescent services at Aurora Behavioral Health Center, the most common phases that children go through are negativistic behavior (ages 2-4), calmer latency age behavior (ages 7-11), increased oppositional behavior (ages 13-16), and increased intensity in friendships and disengagement from parents (ages 14-17).

Siegel says that these behaviors become concerning when the child begins to show aggressive or destructive behavior, experiences increased depression after age 13, becomes isolative or uncommunicative, has falling grades at school, or engages in self-harm.

Apart from a tantrum, any real concerns for most parents begin when the child hits adolescence. The bigger the kid, the bigger the problem. "It is normal for parents to have concerns and even fears when their children become adolescents and go through changes with their moods and emotions. While occasional mood swings and outbursts are not uncommon for kids entering their preteen and teenage years, frequent and unusual behavior could indicate serious issues with confidence, self-esteem and/or bullying," says Angela Skebba, certified adolescent self-esteem coach and former pediatric nurse.

According to Siegel, one-third of all adolescents go through periods of moodiness with no severe acting-out behaviors. What should we look for? "Disruptive behavior and self-harm behaviors are not normal and require treatment," he says. Skebba says parents should watch for signs such as loss of interest in friends and social activities, sadness, anxiety, decline in grades and fear of failure.

Certain personal situations can act as a trigger for specific behavioral issues, and it is a good idea to monitor your child more closely if they have experienced any personal trauma. Siegel points to divorce of the parents, changing schools, a death of a loved one, a breakup with boyfriend or girlfriend, falling out with friends, peer pressure, increased school demands and poor grades as some factors to keep in mind.

"There are innumerable signs of growing mental health needs and concerns of young people in America," says Dr. Mark Batory, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at American Behavioral Clinics. "The percentage of young Americans being prescribed psychotropic medications continues to climb. By 2010, the percentage of Americans 17 and younger taking a psychotropic medication passed the 10 percent mark. That trend is continuing and is projected to reach 20 percent by the end of this decade."

If a parent is seriously concerned, what should they do? "Discuss the problem with your primary physician or pediatrician and consider having your child evaluated by a reputable and certified child therapist," says Siegel. "If the problem is dangerous behavior to self or others, then you should seek immediate evaluation for hospital-based care."

Batory says that if you are legitimately concerned about your childís behavior, it is imperative to seek help because the problems the child is facing may have long-term effects on their lives. "There is an ever-growing body of evidence that most adult mental, behavioral and even physical health problems (e.g., migraines) have their origins in a collective failure to respond to the psychological sufferings of these persons while they are young," he says.

"Growing up is an ongoing process of being challenged to develop mastery over an increasing number of developmental requirements," says Batory. "The most important thing adults can provide to young people is encouragement, patience and actions that sustain or improve a young personís morale, rather than further discourage them by emphasizing what they have not been able to accomplish and increasing the pressure to do so." m



This story ran in the May 2016 issue of: