Child Behavioral Issues

Mental Health
Behavioral Health

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What you need to know

​​​​​​​​​​​​​Child Behavioral Problems? We Can Help.

A child's behavioral problems can take a toll on everyone in the family or household. From isolating themselves to anger and violence to severe problems at school, these children are suffering as much as you are.

But how can you tell whether your child is in trouble or just experiencing normal childhood angst? The following are some questions and answers that might help.

For Emergencies

Remember, if you or your family are in immediate danger, please call 911.

How can I help my aggressive child?

Aggressive behavior in children can be problematic because these behaviors can begin as simple acts of disobedience and later manifest into destructive and physically harmful behaviors. These are difficult behaviors to handle as a parent, but with some work, these behaviors can usually be corrected.

Here are a few suggestions to begin correcting aggressive behavior in your child:

  • Is there a pattern to your child's aggressive behaviors?
  • Talk to your child about his/her feelings when things are calm, so you both understand your child's triggers.
  • Explore with your child coping tools to help manage these feelings, such as counting, walking away, etc.
  • Determine the consequences for the next time aggressive behavior occurs and discuss them with your child during a neutral time.
  • Role-play a realistic situation with your child that normally resulted in aggressive behavior where you practice using coping tools instead. Give praise each time he/she decreases aggression and uses a coping tool instead.

Parents should also model the behavior they expect from children. Make sure your child sees you calm and using coping strategies similar to what you are teaching him/her. After a few weeks, if you don't notice changes in your child's behavior, seek out a trained professional.

What should I do if I discover my child is cutting?

When you discover that your child is cutting, you may initially experience feelings of disbelief, denial, fear and guilt. This is normal, but you must quickly move into parenting mode to help your child.

Teens often use cutting as a way to relieve or express emotions they are facing. Most who cut say that it makes them feel better; however, a serious risk is that the cutter slices too deep or cuts become infected. There are other ways to cope with these emotions, so it is important to help your child identify healthier ways to deal with his/her feelings.

Self-injury should not be ignored. Now that you are aware of it, you can help your child stop. Start by educating yourself about self-injury. Understanding such behavior can help you learn why your child is engaging in it. Prepare and educate yourself before discussing your concerns with your child. This will contribute to a more open conversation. Here are a few tips for talking to your child who is cutting:

  • Talk with your teen about identifying why he/she is cutting
  • Have your teen identify at least two people he/she can talk to before turning to cutting
  • Help your teen create a list of five to 10 activities he/she can engage in instead of cutting

Remember that this is a process and cutting will not stop overnight. Be patient with your child and encourage him/her to be honest with you about cutting. If the behavior continues, then it is critical that you seek professional help, such as that of a therapist.

What if your child or teen talks about suicide?

When a child talks about suicide, the most important thing you can do as a parent is take your child's talk or threats seriously.

  • The first step is to talk to your child. Some parents fear talking about suicide because they are afraid that if their child wasn't thinking about it before, then a discussion will give him/her the idea.
  • However, research shows that by talking about suicide, individuals are NOT more likely to attempt suicide. Have an open and honest conversation with your child about his/her feelings and ask whether he/she is having suicidal thoughts. If your child tells you that they are feeling suicidal or has a plan to hurt themselves, you should immediately take him/her to the nearest emergency room for an evaluation.
  • Any child experiencing suicidal thoughts needs help to work through these feelings, and this typically involves help from a mental health professional. For a referral to visit a licensed mental health professional in your area, please call the Nebraska Family Helpline at 1-888-866-8660​​​. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

How can you help a child struggling in school?

Children struggle in school for a variety of reasons. They may be experiencing problems with peers. They might have trouble understanding the material. They could have difficulty getting along with the teacher. They might be bored with the subject material. They even could have trouble paying attention in class.

  1. Ask your child what he/she is specifically having trouble with.
  2. Ask if anything else is going on at school or home that may be causing poor performance at school.
  3. Speak to your child's teachers to find out what behaviors your child exhibits in the classroom.
  4. Establish a specific study time without distractions each day.
  5. Spend quality time with your child, helping with material he/she is having difficulty understanding.
  6. Create a reward system for good grades.

If you feel you have tried everything but nothing is helping your child, then it may be time to make an appointment with your child's school counselor or an outside therapist. Something else could be going on that your child is afraid to discuss with you and that is ultimately affecting his/her academic behavior. Your child could also be struggling with an undiagnosed learning disability.

What should you do when your child is lying?

It's not uncommon for children of all ages to lie or withhold information in order to avoid conflict, punishment or embarrassment. Often, a lie is easier than admitting responsibility for their behavior.

  • When talking to your child, keep your questions neutral. Don't make accusations or interrogate your child, as this can cause him/her to resort to lying in order to avoid punishment. Set up children for success in telling the truth; don't try to trap them.
  • If you are not using negative consequences in your child's discipline, then you should start doing so. Make sure the consequences are meaningful to your child, are issued immediately and are contingent on behavior. Using and enforcing consequences can help change behaviors, as well as teach your child to practice honesty.
  • Negative consequences include a loss of privileges or an additional chore. Remember, this behavior will not change overnight. Don't give up.
  • If you are experiencing behavioral problems with your child and have questions you need answered, call the Nebraska Family Helpline at 1-888-866-8660. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer your questions and provide help and information.

Bedtime Behaviors

Bedtime can be a difficult time for everyone in the family. Parents are typically tired and ready for some downtime. Children are typically resistant to going to bed for a number of reasons. The goal is to establish a routine and some guidelines that will help this time of day go smoothly.

If your family includes children of a variety of ages, schedule earlier bedtimes for the younger children and individualize times as children develop and mature. If you are uncertain how many hours of sleep your child requires, consult your pediatrician or family doctor.

Plan manageable and consistent bedtime routines. Whether you or someone else is in charge, design bedtimes with consistency in mind. Let your children know ahead of time. Encourage children to ask questions or make suggestions of what to include in the routine. Adjust activities so they are age and developmentally appropriate. Recognize and praise children's efforts to adhere to the new routine.

The bedtime routine should include activities such as the following:

  • Quiet time. Play a quiet, calming activity, reading a book or even watching a movie.
  • Provide a snack if your child needs something in his/her stomach prior to bed.
  • Help your child with a bath, shower or washing up, brushing teeth and changing into pajamas.
  • Prepare the room, which can include turning on a nightlight, playing a calming CD (perhaps nature sounds), and gathering stuffed animals, blankets or books that your child may want in bed. Give your child a drink of water.
  • Help your child use the bathroom right before getting into bed.
  • Once in bed, tell your child a story, pray or rub his/her back to calm and relax him/her.

For some young children, bedtime can be traumatic. They often don't like to be alone, and they don't want to miss out on anything that might be going on in other parts of the home. Sometimes they are scared of monsters or the noises the house makes.

Young children respond more readily to sounds, smells and touch. The following are some suggested activities for the bedtime routine:

  • Give your child a warm bath.
  • Use the same body lotion after bath time.
  • Read books to/with your child.
  • Rock your child to calm and relax him/her.
  • Sing songs with your child.
  • Say prayers with your child.
  • Snuggle with your child.
  • Play soft music in your child's room.
  • Rub your child's back.

When your child gets out of bed or cries for attention, respond each time with a calm, soft voice, repeating that it is time to go to sleep, Mom/Dad loves you, see you in the morning. Lay your child back down in bed, perhaps rub or pat his/her back briefly, and then walk out.

If “monsters" are a concern for your child, using Monster Spray around the room works wonders. Mix about an inch of cold water and a drop or two of lemon juice (monsters hate sour stuff) in a small spray bottle. Then, right before bed, allow your child, armed with the bottle, to make one spray to each space in the room where a monster may lurk. The bottle should be out of the child's reach the rest of the time and reserved for bedtime use only.

Reserve a bit of energy from your day to put into the bedtime routine and brief follow-up and the routine will go smoother.

What do I do if my child talks back?

Talking back is a common problem for all ages of children. It typically occurs when they are asked to do something they don't want to do or they are told they cannot do something they want to do. It often sounds like, “that's not fair!" or “why do I have to do that?" If this sounds familiar, there are a few things that you can do to effect changes.

  • Decide what you would like them to say and do instead of talking back.
  • Describe and demonstrate to them how that should look and sound. ("When I ask you to do something, just say, 'Okay Mom.'")
  • Give them a reason to do it this way and make sure it shows a benefit to them. ("If you can do it this way, you won't get in trouble and can get back to what you were doing before.")
  • Have your child practice by re-doing the situation only this time having them say,"Okay, Mom."

If you can catch this behavior while it is small, by teaching and practicing a healthy alternative, it will be easier to change. If it continues or increases, a negative consequence may be added along with the teaching and practicing.

What do I do if my child doesn’t come home or leaves without permission?

It can be scary if your teenager makes the choice to not come home when they are supposed to or leave home without permission. Often, this is done to avoid following a house rule or punishment, or to do something they would not be allowed to. If your child is gone without permission, here are a few things you can do for their safety:

  • If the youth has a cell phone, call it or text it if you do not get an answer
  • Tell your child you will do everything in your power to make sure he/she is safe
  • Give your child a specific time to return home
  • Check to see if other parents, your child's friends, or social media might confirm where he/she might be
  • Report your child as a runaway to your local law enforcement
  • When your child is found or returns home, make sure the youth is physically OK, and let them know you are glad that they returned.
  • Discuss consequences and loss of trust. Remember to talk about how they can regain your trust.

These are just a few ideas to help locate your child and set up expectations so he/she does not run again.

What can I do to better parent with my ex?

Parenting as a married couple can be difficult with blending different parenting styles. Many times disagreements occur when deciding what is important and how to handle their children's behaviors. When a couple divorces additional challenges arise, negotiation is more difficult, inconsistencies from one parent to the other breed manipulation by the children. There are a few things that can help improve your parenting approach.

  • Focus on what is best for your children and set your own feelings aside.
  • Agree on a few basic expectations and consequences.(these should include, school, chores, social skills and schedules)
  • Document these and post a copy in each home.
  • When transitioning children from one parent to the other, share information about behaviors, concerns and goals.

If you are unable to maintain this agreement, perhaps seeking help from an impartial party to guide you or attending a parenting class could be helpful. If you feel like you are at an impasse consider scheduling a session with a family counselor.

Parenting is a tough job and takes a lot of time and work. Rise to the challenge and focus on the long-term outcome of your efforts.

What can I do if my child is hanging out with the bad crowd?

This type of behavior can begin as early as elementary school and should be addressed as soon as it is observed. Teaching about what makes a good friend and how to be a good friend are ways to help your child understand.

  • Discuss examples of social situations that your child may find themselves in and talk about options that are available to them.
  • Describe the disadvantages and advantages of each.
  • Seek your child's input, suggestions and opinion.
  • Observe their thought process and reinforce their efforts.

When the teen years arrive, they may gravitate towards the bad crowd when they are not fitting in anywhere else and want to be a part of a group. They may want to engage in risky behavior, appear cool and tough and can be pressured by others simply to fit in.

  • Engage your teens in family activities.
  • Teach them how to handle difficult social settings.
  • Frequently engage them in problem solving.
  • Help them identify and develop their own talents.

How do I discipline my child?

We suggest that you discipline your child with LOVE. Many parents think of discipline as something negative, something punishing. It is actually something that is good for kids, good for families and a loving way to teach right from wrong. Discipline teaches kids that the choices they make greatly influence what happens to them.

  • Start when they are young by letting them know when they are doing the right thing, celebrate the good choices they make.
  • When they are not, re-direct and teach them to do it correctly.
  • Make sure you have taught your expectations, that they understand and they are able to do what you are asking of them.
  • Pairing consequences with teaching and practicing can have the greatest effect on whether the behaviors continue.
  • Use consequences such as privileges and chores.