British Columbia·Point of View

Problem child or does your child have a problem?

Every kid goes through phases but could something more serious be affecting their behaviour?

When is it time to see if something more serious is behind their behaviour?

Children grow at different rates and there are phases they'll go through at different times, so what may be normal behaviour for a four-year-old —such as an inability to sit still and focus — may be a sign of a problem in a 10-year-old child. (Tom Woodward/Flickr Creative Commons)

This story is part of Amy Bell's column Parental Guidance, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

If you wrote down a list of all the behaviours my children exhibit on a near daily basis, it might look something like this: nervousness, lack of focus, hyperactivity, poor listening, trouble with school work, memory lapses, aggression — usually in the form of whacking their sibling — and emotional outbursts. 

Is this unusual? 

Not really. But some of these behaviours can be signs that something other than the normal childhood shenanigans are afoot. So, when should a parent begin to explore the possibility they might not have a problem child — but a child with a very real medical problem? 

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common childhood psychiatric disorder in Canada —and many children with ADHD also fall under the spectrum of learning disorders such as dyslexia. But there are many other hidden disabilities that children can face, and if not treated, your child is at risk for less academic success, poor self esteem, additional mental health issues and substance abuse. 

Trust your gut

As with many things concerning your child, it's always a good bet to trust your gut. If you sense they're struggling socially or academically, reach out to friends and family to see if they've experienced anything similar with their own children.

It can be hard to gauge what children are like behind the well cultivated facade of social media, so do talk to someone who will feel comfortable telling you the truth. 

When is it time to see if something bigger is behind your child's 'bad' behaviour?

Don't forget that kids develop at very different rates and there are phases they'll go through at different times, so what may be "normal" behaviour for a four year old —such as an inability to sit still and focus — may be a sign of a problem in in a 10 year old. 

Teachers — especially experienced ones — can often give you a clearer picture of what your child is like when you're not around.  School can be a minefield at the best of times for any kid. For someone with a learning disability or mental health problem, it can be especially hard to connect and "fit in".

Lower Mainland mom Jennifer Fullerton has two boys and both have been diagnosed with learning disorders.  For the past two years, they've been attending James Cameron School in Maple Ridge, which specializes in teaching children with learning and behavioural disabilities.

"Both children were incredibly stressed, particularly my youngest." said Fullerton. "He knew something was wrong and he was too young to articulate it."

Reach out and talk to others

So what happens when you do decide to reach out to get a professional diagnosis and discover that what you were hoping was something to grow out of is actually something long term?

Understand that what you're experiencing isn't unique or unusual —and that's actually a great thing! Dr Ashley Miller, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with BC Children's Hospital, works with kids who experience a host of different diagnoses, and she's stresses how valuable it can be for families to reach out and talk to others who have gone through the same experience. 

"Tons of people are struggling with their child's behaviour at home in isolation," says Miller.  "It's just wonderful when people can connect and realize they are not alone." 

Yes, ADHD, dyslexia and many disabilities and mental health issues can mean life-long behavioural management for kids and their families.

But once you realize what you and your child are dealing with — and with the right supports and proactive behaviours — they most certainly can and will continue to grow and learn and generally amaze the heck out of you. 


Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.