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Challenging Emotions & Behaviors

ALL children experience challenging emotions and behaviors from time to time. But sometimes, challenging emotions and behaviors can be a sign of something more serious. Challenging emotions and behaviors could mean that your child is experiencing a mental health issue, eating and digestion problems, allergies, thyroid condition, issues with drug use, hearing or vision issues, sleep problems, stress or trauma etc. etc.


Contact a doctor if your child or teen's difficult mood is a change from his/her usual mood, if the challenging mood is happening often, if the mood is lasting a long time, or if the mood is affecting his/her life at school, at home or with friends.

  • Intense feelings or mood swings

  • Inability to cope

  • Worry that interferes with daily activities

  • Difficulty dealing with changes to routine

  • Mood change that lasts at least 2 weeks

  • Confused thinking, excessive anger, strange ideas, and difficulty completing daily tasks are also signs that something more serious may be going on. 

Emergency: Always take suicide warning signs seriously. If you are wondering if your child is suicidal, don't be afraid to ask: "Do you want to die? Are you planning to kill yourself?"

​Is your child a danger to self or others?

  • Call 911

  • Child Crisis Response (651-266-7878)

  • Call your child's mental health professional ASAP

  • Go to the emergency room ASAP

If your "gut feeling" tells you that your child may hurt himself/herself, do not let your child be alone.

Remember: Little kids don't think like adults do. When a child is not old enough to understand death, he/she might try a suicide method that an adult would not use. For example- a young child might try to strangle himself with his own hands. Take these actions seriously and do your best to figure out what your child’s intent was. Ask questions and get help!

Consider some of these WARNING SIGNS...

  • Talking about suicide/making plans

  • Talking about dying/ways to die

  • Depression/sadness symptoms, hopelessness, feeling isolated

  • Talking about being in unbearable pain/ feeling trapped/ fear of losing control

  • Unexplained cuts or bruises

  • Talking about being a burden to others

  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol

  • Taking unusual risks or acting recklessly

  • Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Rage or seeking revenge

  • Withdrawing (from home/friends/activities)

  • Change in personality/ change in appearance


Challenging behaviors may include:

  • temper tantrums

  • physical/verbal aggression

  • defiance

  • irritability

  • impulsivity

  • restlessness

  • hyperactivity

  • self-control issues

Some kids/teens have frequent and intense behaviors that cause significant problems for themselves and others. This could be a sign of a mental health disorder. But, it could also be the result of trauma, stress, or a physical health problem.

Is your child/teen's behavior a cause for concern? Consider the context (what else is going on), the frequency (how often the challenging behavior occurs), the duration (how long the challenging behavior lasts) and the intensity (how strongly does the behavior impact the child and othes?) If you feel like "something is not right"... call your child's doctor or talk to a social worker at your child's school. Keep asking questions and don't give up!

Sometimes, a tummy-ache or tantrum can mean that something else is going on.

Children (and teens!) who are feeling sad, angry or worried might also act out with "bad behavior" like whining or aggression. They may also have stomach aches, headaches, or muscle pain. (These are called “somatic complaints.")

  • Listen to your child with full attention (Active Listening)

  • Make eye contact. Go to your child’s level.

  • Avoid interupting.

  • Try to understand. (You don’t have to agree with your child!)

  • Repeat what you heard/ observed.

  • Name your child’s emotion without judgment.

Some kids struggle with Sensory Processing. Everyday, we use our senses to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and move. But, some youth are too sensitive/ hypersensitive. Some constantly seek sensory stimulation. And, others are under-responsive to sensory input. Over-stimulation or under-stimulation can result in behavior issues like melt-downs. If you think this is an issue with your child, talk to someone about making changes to the school or home environment to help regulate sensory input or stimulation.

Use your observation skills and ask questions!

Keep a "mood diary" to track your child's moods- maybe there is a pattern.

Play detective- try to guess the cause of the behavior. Example: “You are feeling angry. Is that right? Do you feel angry?”

Check out this old tv show, Everybody Loves Raymond. In this episode, the Dad and Mom have gone to a parenting class and learned about a skill called "Active Listening."

Some challenging behavior is "learned behavior."

Remember- kids are smart. If a certain behavior gets results, they will tuck it away in their handy dandy tool box! For example, maybe your child has figured out that a tantrum will get Mom to "give in" or maybe whining will get Dad to change his plans. The only way to get this kind of behavior to change is to change how we respond to it.

Are you worried about your child/teen?

If left untreated, mental health problems can get worse. If you are worried about your child, talk to a doctor or a social worker at your child's school.

Try this online Symptom Checker

Learn About Sensory Processing

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