Normal vs Abnormal Behavior in Children



Before we get into what is considered as normal or abnormal, have you thought about why is there even a standard of normal? Does a person with abnormal behavior have to fall into a certain category? There are no easy answers for these questions, but to find the answers we must first understand the meaning of what a psychological disorder is. 


“A psychological disorder traditionally has been defined as a pattern of behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or physical symptoms shown by an individual.” (Mash and Wolfe, 2014) Some of the features found in these individuals are as follows:


  • Shows persistent distress
  • Behavior indicates signs of disability in one or many areas of functioning 
  • Distress or disability increases the risk of severe problems such as pain or death


There are moments in one’s life that causes some kind of distress such as the loss of a loved one or a traumatic event. But there is a difference when a person is constantly affected by their distress or if their distress is situational and can be dealt with effectively. 

It all starts with family

Child development is known to be a social process, before a child starts to socialize their first and most important interaction is with their family. Some children, may only have one parent, some children may have no parents, or some may only have siblings. The primary care givers of a child are considered family and they are the ones who initiate a child’s developmental journey. During the time spent with family, children and adolescents go through various types of development which include:


  • Physical Development
  • Cognitive Development
  • Intellectual Development
  • Language Development
  • Social Development
  • Emotional Development
  • Moral Development
  • Development of Identity
  • Sex-role Development 
  • Peer Relationships


In most cases, these developments occur around close family members. All members of the family have a significant impact on what a child’s behavior will mold into. Therefore, general awareness on child development can help children avoid severe disorders that could significantly impact their lives. 

What is Normal Behavior?

Breaking rules, arguing to get their way, tantrums, crying, etc. are all expected of children. However, too much can turn into a serious problem and might affect the child later on in life. Some parents/caregivers may not understand what is too much and if it is normal at a child’s age to act out. It is always good to understand a few things about child development in order to know what behaviors may cross over the line into abnormal behaviors.


What is normal for preschoolers?

Children who are 3 to 5 years of age tend to be a bit demanding and argumentative when it comes to getting their way. They can suddenly switch gears and use their innocence to get attention from their parents/caregivers. These tantrums overtime should become less intense and shorter in duration as they move out of their toddler years. 


What is normal for Pre-Teens?

Around 7 to 12 years of age children can be classified as pre-teens. During these years, it is normal for pre-teens to develop somewhat of an attitude towards their parents as they want to become more independent. We all know children in this age group are not fully developed, so they may have social trouble and may seek attention. 


What is normal for Teenagers?

During the years of a teenager there are normally a lot of mixed emotions and sometimes behavioral issues may arise. Teenagers, around the ages of 13 to 19 years old, may be trying to discover themselves. They are in the process of transforming into a young adult. Some teenagers might be self-disciplined and some might be defiant and non-compliant. As they are moving into a new stage of their lives there are bound to be some disturbances in their developing years. 

When normal becomes abnormal

When considering the signs below it is important to keep in mind what is developmentally appropriate. Now that we have an idea of what we can expect as normal from certain age groups, we can get an understanding of whether the behavior could fall into abnormal.


Trouble Managing Emotions

As children get older, we expect them to be able to manage their emotions, such as controlling anger in social situations, or controlling their emotions when they are upset. If a child is not able to do so, they might have a deeper emotional issue that needs to be taken care of by a professional psychologist. 


Managing Aggression

If a child is seen to be acting out excessively and showing disrespect, he/she might need help with skill development. 


Repetitive Mistakes

When a child does something wrong, they normally have to face consequences for their actions. If a child repeatedly displays bad behavior regardless of the consequences then they might have a behavioral disorder. 


Academic Problems

If a child’s behavior has a negative effect on their school work, the child should be taken to a counselor to determine whether or not the child has a learning disability. Not seeking professional assistance can cause many emotional and developmental problems later on in his/her life. 


Sexual Behavior

This is always a tricky situation, however if this behavior is not age appropriate, it could mean that the child is experiencing sexual abuse or experienced some type of trauma.



If you see a child engaging in self-harm such as hitting their heads against a wall, or using sharp objects to hurt themselves, or any form of behavior you find inappropriate it is of utmost importance to take the child to a mental health professional. 

Abnormal Behavior, not People

We must keep in mind that abnormal behavior is not defined as abnormal people. The term abnormal behavior simply describes “patterns of behavior that may or may not occur at certain times.” (Mash and Wolfe, 2014) Mental health has been seen to be challenged by stigma, therefore we must avoid identifying any person with a disorder as a “dyslexic child” or “depressed child.” If we are careful with the words that we choose to speak, a child can avoid additional issues associated with their disorders such as low self-esteem or hopelessness, which can lead to severe mental health problems. Practitioners and clinicians use terms such as abnormal behavior or disorder for the sole purpose of “describing the complex features that occur in certain patterns of behavior.” (Mash and Wolfe, 2014)


Stay Tuned

Now that we have touched upon the differences between normal and abnormal behavior seen in children, we must find out how this problematic behavior occurs. What affects children throughout their childhood that can lead to childhood disorders or in contrast, what childhood disorders are hereditary and unavoidable? Next week we will talk about Influencers of Problematic Child Development! 



Carr, A., 2005. The Handbook Of Child And Adolescent Clinical Psychology. 1st ed. 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001: Routledge.

Mash, E. and Wolfe, D., 2014. Abnormal Child Psychology. 6th ed. USA: Cengage Learning.

Verywell Family. 2020. Identifying Normal Misbehavior Throughout A Child’s Years