Spotting Red Flags in Your Kid and What to Do About Them

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I get more questions about child development than any other psychological phenomenon and I’m not surprised. When I became a mom I was floored by how much there is to know, how many “experts” can contradict each other, and how common sense seemed to have no place in many parenting situations. Shouldn’t there be some kind of owner’s manual that comes with your new kid? Maybe the reason why we don’t have one is because much of parenting is viewed subjectively. Meaning, we base what is right and what is wrong on our personal values (or our parents’ personal values… or our in-laws’ personal values… or the values of the well-meaning yet intrusive elderly man at the grocery store), not on hard based facts. This is why, in my opinion, things get way harder than they need to be. Basing parenting decisions on objective information such as brain development, would make everything a whole lot easier for everyone.

First, let’s start with what is normal behavior and what is not. 

But before that, let’s get you in the right head space:

While even the word “normal” can be subjective, let’s not get too caught-up on it. Falling outside the normal range isn’t necessarily bad, it just means that there is important information to be taken into account. So shake-off any fears about what not being normal might mean. If your child does fall outside of the normal range, they need you to be ready to handle it and you definitely can. It’s ok to be scared at first, be honest about it, but don’t let yourself dwell. There are so many resources available and as long as you’re willing to ask for the help you may need, you’ll handle this like a champ.

Now, on to the red flags.

  1. A Dramatic Change in Personality or Behavior

Was your child once shy and introspective and is now chatty and needing to be around others constantly? Or maybe they were quite friendly and now want to be by themselves the majority of the time. Do they suddenly display violent behaviors or explosive anger? Or maybe your once potty trained 5 or 6 year old is now bed wetting.

Any time we as therapists hear a report of a dramatic change in behavior (that can’t be accounted for by medication, illness, or life event), we assess for abuse. If you are concerned after reading this, please don’t hesitate to talk to your child and have them assessed by a mental health professional.

When a behavior change is probably due normal development:

  • If a major life change occurs such as a move, death, divorce, new family member, a parent goes back to work, etc. it’s normal for all people to mourn a life change, even if the change is an improvement! It’s very important to let kids (and yourself) time to adjust and that includes having a time of grieving. If the distress is intolerable or extends beyond 2 weeks, it is advisable to visit a mental health professional.
  • Changes in Developmental Stages can sometimes feel to come overnight. Often, therapists see families with toddlers and teenagers because these stages tend to create the most friction in a family. This isn’t a coincidence. Toddlers and teenagers are both going through an important process called, “differentiation.”
    • 1-3 year olds are in a stage called “Autonomy v. Shame/Doubt.” Toddlers are learning to adjust to social norms while also exercising their independence. This naturally means that kids are trying to explore cause and effect. Which unfortunately means your home has just become one huge science experiment for your little researcher. Children are often labeled “willful” this stage when they are really just doing what their brain is wired to do: explore.
    • Teenagers are in a stage called “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” This stage is scary for a lot of parents because they find their kids pulling away from the family. This is a very normal and healthy thing for kids to do. Parents have helped to form their kid’s values and autonomy. Now it’s time to let them out into the real world… with training wheels of course. They still need to have healthy boundaries in place but it is extremely important that they are given an opportunity to practice “adulting.” Teens often argue, break rules, dress differently, refuse to participate in long-held family traditions (like attending church), and other behaviors that are labeled as “rebellious.” In truth, these behaviors are necessary for your kid to “try on” different parts of themselves. Parents, hold on for the ride. Trust that you’ve done a great job instilling values and good judgement. You want your kids to see you as a valuable resource to navigate life, not a persistent adversary against their every experiment. Unconditional love, rules that promote safety, and willingness to allow for self-exploration are necessary for parents to hold on to at this stage.
    • Sexual Exploration vs. Sexual Abuse Victim. I’m going to throw this in here because it was emphasized on my licensing exam that I just took so it must happen a lot. Children around the age of 4 are prone to self-exploration through masturbation. This is normal. What is not normal is a child who displays sexual knowledge and language beyond their years. Any time this occurs, don’t hesitate to talk to your child about where they learned this sexual information and report any abuse immediately. If there has been abuse, have your child examined by a medical doctor as soon as possible and find a child therapist specializing in sexual abuse.

2. Difficulty with Social Interactions and Language/Speech

  • Signs that you may need to have your child assessed by a psychologist:
    • Lack of Eye Contact- if your kid seems to consistently have a hard time focusing on people when they are talking to them.
    • Repetitive Behaviors/Language- Consistent repeating of words, syllables or noises. Movements that are consistently repeated such as hand-flapping and rocking.
    •  Restricted Interests- It seems like your child is really only into one or (two topics), like insects and seeks to know EVERYTHING about bugs and bugs alone.
    • Restricted Vocabulary- Your kid just can’t find the right words when they’re trying to communicate.
    • Mispronunciation of Words- When it seems like your child can’t produce the correct sounds for certain words. This is normal for very young children but is generally considered to cause concern around age 8.
  • Normal but annoying crap 
    • Kids can be annoying, I’m not going to pretend. Sometimes it helps to alleviate the frustration with annoying behaviors when you know that they’re right on track developmentally.
      • Toddler temper tantrums. Young children have very limited emotional control, it’s unreasonable to expect a 3 year old to have the capacity to control intense emotions (especially if they’re hungry or tired).
      • Bed-time Resistance. Sometimes we forget that our kids really like us. A lot. We are their favorite people. Bed time is an extreme form of separation, and although we know that we’re not going anywhere, their brains are wired to stay near their caretaker for safety. This is one reason why some experts advocate for co-sleeping but all families need to navigate this on their own to find what works best for them.
      • No Empathy. Kids gradually develop empathy over time through natural brain development and through parental modeling. Most kids don’t have a full capacity for empathy until their teenage years but a basic ability for empathy should be present by age 6.
      • Impatience. Very young children have limited impulse control due to neurodevelopment limitations. For example, it’s not practical to expect a young child to wait for food when they’re hungry. Give your kid a snack while they wait and ignore the eye-roll from your Aunt Mildred. However, your 8 year old should have start to have a better grip on impulse control and this is something you can work on with them.

3. Problems at School

  • The biggest thing here is to determine if the problems (let’s say, defiance) is only happening at school or if it happens in other settings too, like extracurricular activities. If it’s happening just at school there may be an undiagnosed learning disorder that needs to be addressed. Kids express themselves more through their behavior than through their words, if they are acting aggressive, defiant or withdrawn, theres a chance they are feeling some big feelings that have an underlying cause. It could be a learning issue causing frustration or it could be: bullying, a big change, or some other unknown factor. A school counselor may be able to quickly administer tests to determine if the issue is learning related or otherwise.

4. Your Gut. If you feel like something is “off” with your kid, the best thing you can do is talk gently and kindly to them about it. This can be done as young as age 3 for some kids. Wait to talk at a time when you’re both calm and the concerning behavior isn’t happening. Try to come from a place of seeking to understand rather than using this as a time to vent your concerns and frustrations. If a kid feels they’ll be punished for telling the truth, they probably won’t tell it. I say this not to encourage you to manipulate them to confess anything but to genuinely encourage you to not punish your child for sharing their reality. Remember, the goal is to be a resource for them. Whatever they are struggling with, you are there to help them through. With a school-aged/adolescent kid, it could look something like this:

Parent: Hey Babe, I wanted to talk to you about something… Is this a good time? (If not, set a time)

Parent: I’ve noticed that it seems like you’re having a hard time with ______. Have you noticed that? or Can you tell me more about that? 

Parent: (Listens and gathers facts for problem-solving, not fuel for punishment)

Parent: Thank you so much for sharing this with me, I’d really like to help figure out how to make it better. (If your kid is a teenager this is when you ask them to help problem-solve. If not, this is when you tell the kid some ideas you have and see what they think. If they don’t like the solution, empathize but gently remind them that it’s your job to help them feel better and so you will.)

I hope this post helps to start the conversation on how to determine if your child needs support. This is merely touching the tip of the iceberg! If you have any questions or a specific scenario, please feel free to send me an email and I would love to feature it (names changed, if you wish!) and help others with your story.


Take Care,

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