Spotting Danger Signals in Your Child's Behavior

Reviewed Jun 30, 2017


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Look out for disturbing or inappropriate behavior that:

  • Happens often
  • Is very intense
  • Goes on and on

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Some days your kid is an angel, and other times you don’t know him. Is this really your child?

Maybe you’ve been busy at work or taking care of other family members, and haven’t noticed how sad he is, or how he shuts himself off in his room or screams at his sister. Today, you notice and are worried.

What’s serious and what isn’t, when it comes to a child’s behavior?

Child psychologists say parents are the experts on their own children. You know her best, and will see changes that strangers—even experts—won’t see.

All kids go through stages. They get mad or sad, don’t eat much, have trouble sleeping, or run into problems with friends. If any unusual behavior happens once in a while, don’t worry.

But, if a problem goes on too long—say, more than two weeks—that behavior could be the sign of something more serious.

Ask yourself, how often does he act like this? How long has she been sad? How big is that temper tantrum? Keep a record so you’ll have details, if you ask a doctor or teacher for help.

Infants and toddlers

Babies are born happy, curious, and interested in the world around them, even if they have a bad day once in a while. If you can’t figure out what makes your baby sad, distant, or afraid, you need to find out.

By the time your child is 2 or 3, expect tantrums. Don’t give in to the child’s demands, but help your toddler calm down and find a graceful way out of the grip of anger.

Your toddler may get fussy about food and clothing, too. Is bedtime a problem? Lots of kids don’t want to stop playing to go to bed. Or, they might have bad dreams. These are normal behaviors in young children.

But, your child might have a serious problem if she does any of the following day after day for a few weeks or months:

  1. Is afraid of everyone but mama or papa
  2. Doesn’t smile or make eye contact
  3. Wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, and can’t be comforted
  4. Shows little interest in eating
  5. Is scared of the doctor, or frightened by anything new
  6. Isn’t interested in other kids
  7. Bites, kicks, and spits when mad
  8. Throws tantrums that go on for more than an hour
  9. Won’t share
  10. Prefers to be alone

Child psychologist Rahil Briggs says these behaviors at an early age might predict the child will have trouble “negotiating the demands of the world” later on in life.

To help a child get on the right track, she works with the parent, explaining what the child needs, how to read distress signals, and how to help the child.

After a few short visits, parents see changes in their child’s behavior, and they see how to head off problems in the future. But, if a parent waits until the problem is worse—say, at age 14—it will take “a lot of time, money, and extraordinary effort,” to turn it around, Briggs says. 

School-age children

Is your child school-age child:

  • Shut down or withdrawn
  • Not playing with friends or talking to family members
  • Doing poorly in school
  • Getting too much or not the right amount of sleep
  • Grouchy or moody

If a pet dies and your child is sad for a few days, don’t worry. And, some children may be going through hormonal changes, which could throw them off balance briefly.

But if outbursts or weepiness lasts for more than two weeks or happens many times a day, you should be worried.

Just like adults, some children suffer from depression. Girls tend to withdraw but boys lash out in anger or violence when depressed, explains psychologist LeslieBeth Wish.

By age 7 or 8, your child should have some friends. If not, try to find out why.

Bullying is a big problem among school-age children. Bullying is bad for the victim as well as the bully.

Not all bullies are outwardly violent. Some get others to do their dirty work. Girls are likely to insult, humiliate or make fun of another child, while boys get physical. Parents should act right away if they suspect bullying, even among very young children. Ask your school for help if your child is either the bully or the victim.

Teens and college students

College counselor Richard Shadick tells parents to listen carefully to what their teens say, when they ask them about themselves and their world.

Do they tell you they are:

  • Nervous about something
  • Depressed
  • Having trouble in school
  • Threatened by other kids
  • Picked on by teachers or other authority figures

If so, take their concerns seriously and help them solve their problem. Is your teen a risk-taker or someone who hangs out with kids who drink, use drugs, drive fast, or have sex? All teens try on different identities—including that of a risk taker—but the more time a teen spends doing unsafe things, the more parents should be worried, Shadick says.

The most widely found problems he sees among teens are bullying, poor communication at home, academic troubles, and problems at work.

He advises parents to get involved in their teen’s life.

  1. Talk to his friends and teachers.
  2. Go to school events. 
  3. Get to know the parents of your child’s friends.
  4. Chaperone school events or trips.

Get involved in a community project with your teen, such as an environmental cleanup, sports, or a fundraising event. 

If you’re worried about a certain behavior:

  • Talk to your teen about it. Sit in a quiet place, and have a conversation. Express your concerns clearly, then listen.
  • If communication isn’t flowing, talk with others involved in your child’s life, maybe a teacher or boss. Ask other parents for their take on your child.

Look for support from community resources. Find someone you can trust and ask for help, such as a parent. Should you snoop? Only as a last resort, says Shadick, or if it’s a health or safety issue.

“Your teen needs to establish an identity and you don’t want to rob him or her of that step,” he says.


Mental Health America

Helpful websites

How can you spot childhood depression?, The Daily Mail,

“Recognizing Potential Signs of Mental Illness in Your Child,”

MindUP Program, the Goldie Hawn Foundation,




By Paula Hartman Cohen ©2011-2017 Beacon Health Options Source: Rahil Briggs, PsyD, Co-director, Healthy Steps Program, Montefiore Medical Center, New York, NY; Ellen Wildemann Broom, PhD, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX; Richard Shadick, PhD, Director, Counseling Center, Pace University, New York, NY; LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, MSS, psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, Sarasota, FL.

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes, and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical, health care, psychiatric, psychological or behavioral health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.



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