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Perhaps you've witnessed a child who whines, yells and runs throughout the grocery store, and the parent just keeps shopping and doesn't seem to notice. Nobody ever wants to be that parent who seems immune to their own child's misbehavior. But sometimes it's hard to tell if your child's misbehavior is normal or not. If the misbehavior is within the normal range, it may just require some disciplinary action to take care of it. However, if the behavior seems to be out of the bell-shaped curve, it may require professional intervention.
Normal Versus Abnormal Misbehavior
When determining what's normal behavior and what isn't, a child's developmental stage needs to be taken into account. What's normal misbehavior for a 4-year-old most likely isn't normal for a 14-year-old. It is normal, however, for kids of all ages to test limits sometimes and to try and get a reaction out of adults. Misbehavior becomes a problem when it interferes with a child's functioning. For example, if a child's misbehavior makes it nearly impossible for him to establish friendships or make academic progress, it's a problem. If your child's misbehavior interferes with social or educational functioning, talk to your child's pediatrician.
As toddlers gain more independence as they learn to walk and talk, they also begin to exercise the word, "No." It's normal for toddlers to be mildly non-compliant when told to pick up their toys or put down the breakable china. It's also normal for toddlers to have tantrums and frequent emotional meltdowns when they don't get their way. Throwing themselves to the ground, crying and screaming are normal responses for toddlers. They may become physically aggressive at times when they don't get their way and lack the ability to express complicated concepts verbally.
Normal Preschool Misbehavior
Preschoolers show increased ability to regulate their emotions. Meltdowns and tantrums should be less frequent and less intense. They should also be developing the ability to use their words and aggression should diminish. As preschoolers begin to develop relationships with other kids, it's normal to have difficulty sharing toys and attention from adults. Preschoolers often continue to test limits and break rules at times, to see how caregivers will respond. They often want to exert their independence with tasks such as getting dressed their own way, but may demand help with other tasks such as picking up toys.
Once children begin attending school, their independence grows in leaps and bounds. They no longer require constant eyes-on supervision, and it's normal for them to take advantage of their new freedom at times -- so they may try to lie to get their way out of trouble. It's normal for school age children to struggle with self-discipline and may need help remembering to brush their teeth, do their homework and do their chores. School-age children also tend to have difficulty managing frustration as they begin to try new tasks and solve problems on their own. They may be sore losers and need help developing empathy for others.
Normal Preteen Misbehavior
Pre-teens begin to experience new social pressures and hormonal fluctuations that can lead to behavioral changes. It's normal for preteens to try and assert increased independence and as a result, may become non-compliant and argumentative. For example, it's normal for a preteen to say, "I know, I'll do it later," when reminded to do their chores. Preteens can be very moody and may appear to develop an "attitude" with parents. They may also become mildly rebellious by wanting to dye their hair or wear clothes their parents may not approve of. They may lack adequate social skills and may struggle with bullying and peer relationships as well.
Normal Teen Misbehavior
As kids progress through adolescence, their ability to regulate their emotions improves and their social skills become more fine-tuned. However, teens commonly continue to test limits and may behave rebelliously at times. Teenagers are prone to peer pressure and need adult guidance to help them manage their impulses and make healthy decisions. They may experiment with different social groups and struggle to find their identity as they try to become independent from their parents.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker who works as a therapist for adults and children. She is also an instructor at a community college, where she teaches courses in psychology and mental health. Morin received her Master of Social Work from the University of New England.