Signs Your Child May Need Behavioral Therapy

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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All children go through emotional ups and downs. Feeling sad, angry or frustrated from time to time is normal. Life-changing events can take a toll on kids, and lead to changes in their behavior. It’s important for parents to recognize the difference between normal “growing pains” and behavioral problems. 

Parents wondering if their child needs behavioral therapy should consider a few different factors:

  • Age. Conflicts between children and their parents are a normal part of growing up. It can start when kids are toddlers, the infamous “terrible twos.” These struggles may continue through the teen years as children form their own identities.

  • Level of development. Children are individuals with unique personalities and different dispositions, and this can affect their behavior. A child’s level of development also plays a role. Not all children develop at the same pace. Intelligence and social skills may progress differently. For example, social skills may develop more slowly in some kids who are very smart. Considering your child’s level of development can help you understand his or her actions.

  • Environment. It’s important to consider when and where a child acts out. Some behaviors are out of place in certain situations. Home life can affect a child's behavior, so consider family dynamics. A child’s behavior can also change dramatically during times of emotional stress, such as losing a loved one or moving to a new house. Problems associated with major life changes usually get better over time, but some kids have more trouble adjusting than others.

Warning Signs of a More Serious Problem

Behavior problems that last for six months or more could be a sign that a child needs behavioral therapy. These problems are often more serious and can involve behavior that is aggressive or disruptive.

Children with behavioral problems don’t seem to act their age. Signs that a toddler may have behavior disorder include:

  • Head banging
  • Repeated biting, hitting or kicking

Older children who are violent or destructive need professional medical help. 
Other warning signs of trouble in any age group include: 

  • Constant fighting 
  • Damaging property 
  • Disrespect for authority figures 
  • Dishonesty
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Engaging in early sexual activity 
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Performing poorly in school 
  • Threatening to run away
  • Skipping school
  • Anxiety that interferes with normal activities, such as school work or social activities
  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Stealing
  • Using drugs or alcohol

Seek immediate medical care or take your child to the emergency room for a mental health assessment if:

  • Your child has attempted or is threatening suicide or other forms of self-harm such as cutting. 
  • Your child is hurting or threatening to hurt others.

What You Can Do for Your Child

You may feel overwhelmed or even frightened at the thought of talking with someone about your child’s behavior. But any of these warning signs warrant a call to your child’s doctor or directly with a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist

Another option is to see a developmental-behavioral pediatrician. This is a pediatrician with additional training and expertise in the social, emotional, academic and behavioral aspects of a child’s development. You can search for a psychiatrist or developmental-behavioral pediatrician in your area.

Take the first step and schedule an appointment. Your doctor will consider your child’s symptoms and other factors and help you decide next steps, such as comprehensive mental health testing and evaluation. With a proper diagnosis, you can explore the treatment options, including behavioral therapy, that best fit your child’s needs.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 26
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Child Behavior Disorders. Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine.
  2. Normal Child Behavior. American Academy of Pediatrics.
  3. When to Seek Help for Your Child. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
  4. Does My Child Have an Emotional or Behavioral Disorder? Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights.
  5. What is a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician? from the American Academy of Pediatrics.