When your child’s behavior goes too far

Justin was really excited to be enrolled in a summer day camp. And his mom, Sophie, was happy that he was taking part in a quality parks and rec program in their community. 

Then came the phone call from the program director: Justin’s behavior at camp was unacceptable.

It had begun on the playground on the second day of camp with bullying of other children and foul language directed at a camp counselor. The next day, during arts and crafts, the 8-year-old had snatched another child’s artwork out of her hands, declared it to be “stupid,” and had torn it into tiny pieces.

On Day 4, Justin’s group went swimming and he pushed a girl on the pool deck causing her to slip and fall. The program director had seen enough.

“We have given Justin time outs, we have talked to him numerous times about his behavior, and we have done our best to manage him, but he is making camp unsafe for the other children,” the director told Sophie. “Enough is enough. Justin is not welcome in this program any longer.”

The news was devastating to Sophie, but hardly surprising. 

Justin had always been a difficult child: He was highly explosive, easy to anger and very unpredictable. He frustrated easily and was overly sensitive to criticism. 

Other children kept their distance — often at the instruction of their parents — and Justin was no longer invited to birthday parties or on play dates.

Sophie had tried everything she knew to help Justin with his behavioral challenges, but it wasn’t working. She also knew that Justin needed more help than she alone could give, and had to figure out a way to effectively advocate for him before it was too late.

Here are five steps parents can take to effectively advocate for children with emotional or behavioral issues:

1. Don’t wait. Act now.

Even though parents feel they’re responsible for their child’s well-being, they’re often unsure of what to do when serious behavioral issues arise. As a result, they wait to seek help and the child’s behavior gets worse, often resulting in negative, long-term consequences. Talking to supportive family, friends, teachers and other adults can be a good first step to getting a plan in place.

2. Talk to your pediatrician.

Frequent emotional outbursts and volatile, disruptive behavior aren’t typical and may be a sign that something else is going on. Make an appointment with your pediatrician and discuss whether it might be appropriate to consider having an evaluation done. Understanding the symptoms and potential medical causes can be a positive step toward helping your child.

3. Learn the language.

Your son or daughter may have frequent emotional and behavioral challenges, but these shouldn’t define your child. Despite the stigma often attached to mental health issues and emotional and behavioral challenges, consider what help your child needs. 

Speak up for your child. Learn what his triggers are as well as his strengths. Understand the treatments and medication options that might be suggested. Most importantly, help others understand these challenges, including teachers, neighbors and your own family.

4. Enlist allies.

You aren’t in this alone; others will help if you ask. Sophie did the right thing when she enlisted her friend Allison to help. Allison brought her son, Matt, over to Sophie’s house where the two boys could play and their moms could closely supervise the activities. There was a minor disagreement over a toy — nothing out of the ordinary for two boys entering the third grade. The dispute was resolved with Sophie’s help, and the play date went well. Sophie had stepped out of her comfort zone, asked for help, and effectively advocated for her son.

5. Take care of yourself!

Raising a child with emotional and behavioral challenges can drag you down if you let it. Join a parent support group. Contact PACER for resources. Turn to your friends for help, even if it’s only a listening ear. Your child needs you now more than ever, and you need to be physically and emotionally healthy to be his or her most effective advocate.


© Disney. Reprinted with permission from Disney Online. All Rights Reserved. This article originally appeared on Babble.com and was published in partnership with PACER Center, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities that helps families with children with disabilities and also runs the National Bullying Prevention Center. Learn more at pacer.org.