Sure, parents know to expect tantrums and other bratty antics. But biting classmates and annihilating bugs? Find out what to do when your child's actions start to scare you.
child misbehaving
Credit: Shannon Greer

When my 3-year-old first discovered ants, he'd sit for hours on our front porch, watching them scurry about. It was sweet to see his fascination with this tiny part of the world around him, and I imagined him someday majoring in entomology or producing nature documentaries. That dream lasted just a few weeks--until the day I spotted him smashing the helpless little critters with his fists.

"I'm breaking the ants!" Zachary shouted gleefully. The lab coat I'd envisioned him one day wearing instantly morphed into an orange prison jumpsuit. Was I raising a sociopath? Probably not, says Michelle LaRocque, Ph.D., associate professor of exceptional student education at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton. According to her, kids of all ages do scary things that might lead their parents to believe they've produced a bad seed, but testing limits is normal. Of course, there are some behaviors you really do have to worry about--and that may necessitate an appointment with a child psychologist (ask your pediatrician for a recommendation). We can help you identify what's developmentally appropriate--and what shouldn't be ignored.

The Bug Crusher

You see the backyard as a refuge, but to your kid it's a place to explore, which sometimes may mean poking and prodding tiny creatures.

Who does it? Toddlers and preschoolers

What they're thinking Usually they're simply curious. "Kids are really interested in cause and effect--they don't understand that what they're doing causes pain," Dr. LaRocque explains. It could also have to do with his perception of bugs, she adds. "If a child has seen adults killing them, he may view them as pests."

How to deal It's your job to instill in your child respect for all living things (even if the fact that you swat flies or set mousetraps makes you feel like a hypocrite). When you catch your kid in the insect-killing act, start by acknowledging that you know he is just having fun; then explain why it's not okay, says Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in child-development and parenting issues. "Say, 'I know you like stepping on the ants--but they are living creatures, just like we are. They have a body and blood just like we do, and what you're doing could hurt them.' " This important lesson helps teach children impulse control and to consider how their actions affect others, which can carry over to how they treat schoolmates and siblings.

When to call an expert You should be worried if your child is truly torturing the little creatures, especially if he's taking pleasure in it. Doing something like abusing an animal such as a cat or a dog, which is more common among older children, can be a sign of future antisocial behavior.

The Insult Slinger

A verbal slap like "I wish I had a different mom!" can leave you asking how your child got to be so cruel. These zingers aren't only tossed at parents, of course; you may find yourself cringing as you overhear your child tell her friend, "You're stupid!"

Who does it? Kids of all ages

What they're thinking When preschoolers blurt out mean things there's no real malice intended--they're just reflecting something they're feeling. "Little kids don't have a social filter or impulse control yet," Dr. LaRocque says. So, if your daughter says, "Go home!" to a sitter, it might really mean she doesn't want you to leave. If her rude comment is directed at a friend, she could be tired of fighting over whether it's her turn to hide or to seek--or just be tired, period. Bottom line: She's probably not trying to be hurtful.

Once a child hits 5 or 6, she has a better understanding of what she's saying. So why would your little angel shout, "Shut up!" to your face? Kids rage just like we do when they're angry, says Dr. Maidenberg. But while adults typically hold back from saying something nasty because it's counterproductive or rude, "kids don't understand that if they express themselves in a more socially appropriate way they're more likely to be listened to," she says.

How to deal Explain to your kid that when she says "your shoes are ugly!" or "I don't want to play with you," it could hurt someone's feelings. "Tell her she can say 'Mom, I want to talk to you' and then tell you privately what's up, but she shouldn't make mean comments in front of other people," Dr. LaRocque says. If your child is over 5, put her in the other person's shoes by asking how she would feel if a friend said the same thing to her.

When to call an expert You should be concerned if your child is constantly making scary statements ("I wish you were dead!") directed at other people. "Something may have happened that's causing her to speak aggressively," says Dr. Maidenberg; it's important to find out what that is. Whom her language is directed toward could be a clue; for example, lashing out at authority figures could mean your child has anger toward an adult in her life who is mistreating her.

The Sibling Stalker

Kids fight. But if your son whales on his sister every time she enters his room, you're probably concerned.

Who does it? Children of all ages

What they're thinking It's normal for sibs to get annoyed with each other (think how tense things can be with your brothers and sisters when the family gets together for holiday dinners). But while adults can choose not to spend so much time with a particular person, kids are stuck with their siblings. And all that bottled-up frustration can lead to shoving, wrestling, and slapping. (While a child may have similar feelings of frustration with classmates, he's less likely to act on them due to fear of humiliation or the wrath of a teacher.)

How to deal Instead of trying to find the cause of a brawl and playing referee, Dr. Maidenberg recommends instituting a blanket no-violence policy. "Often, the older child gets punished because he can exert more force and should know better. So in my house, both kids get in trouble when they're physical," she says.

When to call an expert It's not so much the frequency of the fighting that should alarm you as the nature of it, says Dr. Maidenberg. "It's a cause for concern when somebody is getting physically hurt," she says. "In that case there might be something more serious going on with your child, such as an impulse-control issue, conduct disorder, depression, or anxiety."

The Biter

Your kid's teacher called to let you know your daughter has sunk her teeth into a classmate's arm--again.

Who does it? Toddlers and preschoolers

What they're thinking Biting often stems from language difficulties. For kids, not being able to say what they feel (like anxiety or jealousy over a big change such as a new baby) is extremely frustrating, and that can lead to biting. While kids also vent through hitting and tantrums, biting is especially common among small children because of where they are developmentally. Plus, they're not adept at regulating their emotions well, says Matthew Hertenstein, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. "Babies learn a lot about the world by using their mouth; biting is a behavior that doesn't turn off right away," he explains.

How to deal Act immediately. "If you're there when it happens, say 'no' in a calm and assertive tone. Don't yell or fly off the handle," says Dr. Maidenberg. Make direct eye contact to help your child connect the command with the unacceptable behavior. Once your child reaches age 3 and is more aware of her relationships, explain, in her terms, the social repercussions of her actions. "Let her know that other children aren't going to want to play with her if she bites them," says Dr. Maidenberg.

When to call an expert Biting is always worrisome because it's a safety issue. That said, this behavior is a real cause for concern if your child is doing it after age 4 or 5, when she's able to express herself well. "Kids typically outgrow this behavior, but if they don't it could mean there is some sort of stress in their life that they're not able to deal with, or they could have aggression issues, " says Dr. Hertenstein.

The Bad Mouth

Even the most angelic child can sometimes sound like he's been possessed by Denis Leary.

Who does it? Kids of all ages

What they're thinking This behavior is usually modeled. Kids pick up bad words from classmates, siblings, and, um, their parents. If your preschooler keeps doing it, it's probably because he got a big laugh the first time he blurted one out, while big kids curse to be cool.

How to deal Make sure the only feedback a younger child gets is negative. Instead of cracking up after he curses, let him know the behavior isn't okay. Try, "We don't use that word in this family." If he's imitating you by swearing after he's dropped something, give him an alternative, says Dr. Hertenstein. For example, drop a toy and say, "Oh man!" Older kids may respond to your reprimands with, "But you say it!" If so, try creating a Swear Jar. "Every time you curse, throw in a dollar. " When the jar is filled, take the kids for ice cream.

When to call an expert "Don't worry unless it's really inappropriate--for example, he's swearing at a teacher," says Dr. Hertenstein. "In that case, the behavior could signify power and defiance issues."

The Schoolyard Bully

Whether he's throwing punches or calling a classmate fat, your child could be inflicting serious damage.

Who does it? School-age children

What they're thinking Kids who act out this way at school are often looking for attention. If they see that hurting someone works, they'll continue to do it. So find out why your child craves the limelight so badly--and address that issue promptly. Hitting or spreading rumors could also be a sign that he hasn't yet learned self-control. "We all have innate aggressiveness. We just don't act on it because we understand how our behavior affects others and because of our social consciousness and value system," Dr. Maidenberg explains. "Sometimes kids don't yet have the turn-off switch."

How to deal It's important to understand what your child's motivation is, and the best way to find out is to ask. Dr. Hertenstein suggests something along these lines: "Your teacher told me about how you've been tripping Owen in the hallway. What makes you want to do that?" Next, use the how-would-you-feel tactic. Say, "You make fun of Nate because he doesn't play sports, but how would you feel if people made fun of you because you don't like sleepovers?" Once you know what's going on in his head, practice techniques to help him with his self-control, like taking deep breaths or counting to ten prior to taking action. While getting to the bottom of what?s provoking him and providing alternatives are crucial, so is providing consequences. Whether it's no TV or an early bedtime, taking away privileges shows that this behavior is never okay. Also make sure your child's teacher is as serious about the issue as you are. "There should be a zero-tolerance policy in the classroom," says Dr. Hertenstein.

When to call an expert It's one thing if your daughter makes fun of someone because she's been riled up by her group of friends. But if she's made a habit of generating gossip with the sole intention of hurting people, there might be reason to worry. "You have to look at the frequency and the severity of the behavior," says Dr. Hertenstein, who notes that a kid who is bent on inflicting pain and who isn't responding to discipline might have oppositional defiant disorder or antisocial disorder. No matter what, if physical bullying is involved, there's always cause for concern.

Shock Art

Sometimes kids draw disturbing things (like guns or car wrecks). If your child's masterpiece freaks you out, know that it likely came from a fear of bad things happening--not wanting to hurt others.

Look closely. Try to figure out what your child's drawing means. A monster is likely fear related, but violence directed at another person (say, someone stabbing someone else) is cause for concern.

Ask about it. If a drawing raises a red flag, it's important to find out what's going on in your kid?s head. Ask about the picture--who is in it, and what he was thinking of when he drew it.

Talk it out. If your kid can't explain it, ask him flat out if there's anything he's afraid of. Once you identify the fear, you can help him work through it.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

Copyright ? 2010 Meredith Corporation.

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