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How To Deal When Your School-Age Child Seems Out Of Control

child jumps on the sofa stressing out mother who is sitting nearby

It’s normal for children go through stages. In fact, sometimes they seem to just get out of one before they are into another. This is particularly true between birth and five years when the pace of growth is extraordinary. It’s a pace that’s never replicated again during the life span.

Emotions and behaviours are often thrown out of equilibrium, at least temporarily, as children struggle to acquire new abilities. So the baby who is learning to walk may have difficulty eating and sleeping and could seem irritable and out-of-sorts during the struggle to succeed. Fortunately, the upsets usually fade quickly as your child begins to toddle around and energy can again be used to deal with other areas of development.

Parents who have more than one child can tell you that children differ significantly in the way they respond to situations and adjust to social experiences. Researchers agree that a child’s personality and temperament are shaped, in part, by the family, but also by the characteristics the child brings into the world.

Getting to know their temperament

Children vary vastly in their pace of development and intensity of reactions, degree of irritability, sensitivity to sights, sounds and touch and adaptability.

Knowing about your child’s individuality and temperament and adapting to them can help reduce some of the difficult behaviours which will be talked about in this chapter.

Understanding their needs

In spite of all these ups and downs and the diversities of parents and children, research has outlined for us some very clear guidelines of the type of parenting that children need. Ignoring any of these can lead to problems and mean that the difficult behaviours typical of most children become not just passing stages, but settle into serious behaviourial and emotional disorders.

Love, nurturing and attention
Every child needs at least one person who is passionate about him or her and enjoys the time spent together. This doesn’t mean being with the child all the time, but it does mean commitment, caring and unconditional love.

Food, warmth, clothing, housing, protection
These may seem like obvious requirements, but without these basic needs, a child’s development could be seriously impeded.

Stimulation and opportunities for learning
Feed your child’s curiosity. This doesn’t mean teaching all the time – it does mean providing opportunities for your child to run, jump, manipulate objects, build, play and to imagine. Talking and listening to your child need to be central aspects of the environment that is provided for your child.

Structure, routines and limits
Children must have limit-setting, just as much as they need love and caring. Such a process can reduce anxiety as well as lead to a gradual acquiring of the rules and values of your family and society.

Social skills and caring for others
Children gradually need to learn skills that can enable them to mix with people outside the family.

Worth noting: A child without social skills is likely to be rejected by other children in daycare and when school starts.

Opportunities for interactions in group settings and learning to share with other children can help a better adjustment to the demands of daycare and school and, even college and the workplace.

The school-age years

From five years of age until early adolescence, children are usually much easier to manage. A sudden desire to do everything just right makes life a lot easier. By then, children have the beginning of a sense of conscience which stops them from doing something they have been told is wrong. It even makes them feel bad if they don’t obey rules.

During this period children often want to be just like their parents and it can be amusing and gratifying to see your child adopt your mannerisms and even want to borrow your clothes!

By this age your child may be able to sit long enough to complete a task or attend to an activity without becoming upset and frustrated. These are the important achievements of the school-age child and can make adjustment much easier.

Identifying difficult behaviour

The rigid child

  • Some children internalize such a strict sense of rules and of right and wrong that they become fearful and restricted in their activities.
  • Some children worry excessively if they cannot do their school work.
  • Some children worry about thinking ‘bad thoughts’.
  • Some children worry about birth, death and marriage. The death of a pet, friend or relative and the meaning of death may become powerful concerns.
  • Many children, during the early school years, become concerned about safeguarding their own bodies. They may get quite upset over small cuts and bruises. Hang on to bandages and tape!
  • Some rigid children may develop nervous tics, pulling habits or obsessions.

Difficulty concentrating and following instructions
Children sometimes have a great deal of difficulty conforming when they enter school and are faced with expectations about listening and following instructions. They seem to be compelled to fidget and attend to everything that is going on around them except what the teacher is saying!

This lack of focusing results in having a great deal of trouble completing activities and in some cases in learning new material. The cause may simply be that a child has had little previous opportunity for following instructions or concentrating or it may be a real difficulty with hyperactivity.

Bedwetting (enuresis)
Many children are still bedwetting at 5 years of age, especially boys, but most can stay dry all night by 10 years of age. However, even then the control needed may be subject to occasional regression due to stress or during illness.

Never ridicule a child who suffers from enuresis as a child would much rather be dry all night and feels deeply ashamed about the problem.

It is especially difficult when sleepovers and camps are activities which may have to be turned down in case the child has an accident. Remember that genetic factors may play a part, as might emotional upheavals at home or school. Take a positive approach. Be reassuring that the difficulty can be overcome. Try limiting fluids and getting the child up at night to use the toilet.

Lying, stealing and cheating
This kind of behaviour probably upsets parents more than any other. It can be just the occasional ‘fib’ or stretching of the truth to a much more serious habit which becomes a way of avoiding getting into trouble.

Sometimes children steal because they feel unloved and crave their parents’ positive attention.

Examine your own interactions and disciplining of your child. Sometimes children with these problems are frightened to tell the truth or to ask for anything that they want because of experiencing very strict punishment.

Excessive withdrawal

Some children seem to find relating to peers so difficult, or they become victimized by bullies to such an extent, that they give up trying to be a part of the group.

Many of these children become excessive television viewers or withdraw into their own world of fantasy.

Some children create an imaginary friend at this age. Although having an imaginary friend is very common from about 3 to 6 years of age, when a child persists in keeping one up to 10 years of age, it becomes much more problematic, especially if it appears to be a strategy adopted to avoid the real world and to overcome loneliness.

Parents who notice their child withdrawing in this way should check out with the school what might be occurring between their child and other children. Sometimes stopping a bully can help the situation.

Bullying behaviour

Some children take pleasure out of hurting and victimizing other children. This can take the form of hitting or verbal abuse and is often carried out with a gang of other children.

There is ample evidence now that this behaviour is common in school yards and is extremely damaging for victims of the bullying.

If your child is identified as a bully it is critical that you cooperate with teachers to help the child overcome the problem while making it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable.

What can you do?

Although children at times feel all grown-up, your child needs your attention, concern and love as much as ever. Many problems can be overcome by an occasional special outing and an affectionate word.

Notice what your child is doing right and let the child know this – just as much as you notice wrong-doing.

  • Have firm, consistent rules which you follow through on, although these rules should change as the child matures. Children change dramatically from 5 to 10 years of age.
  • Allow your child to have some say about the rules, like choosing their chores and discussing the bedtime hour.
  • Remain in charge and be a parent. Don’t fall into the habit of trying to be a buddy to your child.
  • Invite one child over or go to places where there is bound to be an encounter with other children if your child is having difficulty making friends.
  • Limit programs and watch together occasionally to make it a more social activity if your child watches an excessive amount of television.

When to be concerned

Parents are often confused over when to ignore a behaviour as something a child will grow out of and when it has become a problem that needs outside help.

For the most part trust your instincts as you know your child best, but also pay attention to teachers or recreation workers who identify concerns. It’s better to seek professional help if you have concerns, as the earlier a behaviour is dealt with the more likely that later difficulties can be prevented.

Below are some pointers which may help you decide if your child has a problem needing attention. They can apply at any age, even in some cases for infants.

  • If your child has a significant delay in a certain area of development such as speech or shows delays across several areas of functioning, e.g. fine and gross motor, speech, cognition and self-help skills.
  • If a difficult behaviour is very intense and has not begun to reduce in intensity or frequency after 2-3 months.
  • If the problem seems to be affecting a wide range of your child’s functioning such as school work, interactions with peers, sleeping and eating.

When to seek immediate help

If your child shows any of the below more serious problem behaviours, check with your family physician or paediatrician. If there is a concern, your doctor may refer you to another professional for further assessment. Treatment, if recommended, may include play therapy, parent groups, family therapy or interactional guidance.

  1. If depression is evident almost all the time. This is more likely to occur following a loss or separation of a loved one, but your child may need help—especially if you are feeling upset and find it difficult to talk about the loss.
  2. If your child has suffered some trauma such as abuse, an accident, hospitalization, witnessing a violent episode, and, as a consequence, is withdrawn, angry, fearful or shows ritualistic behaviour or nightmares.
  3. If extreme anxiety, fears or phobias, withdrawal or ritualistic behaviour affects the ability to interact with others and to carry out normal activities.
  4. If constant and excessive anger and aggressive behaviour with siblings, parents and/or peers makes adjustment at school and functioning in the home difficult.
  5. If there is great difficulty in establishing eye-to-eye contact, spinning of objects, twirling, lack of interaction with others and other bizarre behaviours.
  6. If there is an extreme activity level which makes it difficult for your child to sit still and pay attention.
  7. If there is cruelty to animals and to other children and failure to show empathy and concern for others.
  8. If there is extreme and frequent risk-taking behaviour which can place your child at risk for injury such as intentionally self-inflicted burns, jumping from high places and running on the road.
  9. If there is arson or fire-setting
  10. If there is an inability to attend to or to concentrate on a task so that play is disorganized and your child is unable to play alone or even with your assistance for longer than a few minutes. This would be particularly concerning if similar behaviour is noticed in daycare or school with regard to the ability to follow instructions or routines.
  11. If there is extreme clumsiness and lack of balance, making it difficult to manage gross or fine motor activities.

Originally published in 2007.

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