The restless and excitable child: for parents and carers  

This webpage looks at the reasons behind why some children are more restless and excitable than others and suggests where to go to get extra help.

 

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Young children are often restless and excitable. Their noisy liveliness is usually just a part of being young. Although it may be tiring, it is usually nothing to worry about.

Sometimes youngsters may be so active and noisy that it makes life difficult for their parents and other children. A child like this may be demanding and excitable, and chatter away nineteen to the dozen.

They may be noisy, may not do as they are told, and will probably find it difficult to sit still. Adults may say that he's ‘hyperactive’, but the trouble with this word is that professionals use it to describe extreme, and sometimes dangerous behaviour, such as running out into a busy road.

There are many things that can make a child overactive. The following should give you some guidance as to the reasons for your child's behaviour. Finding the reasons may help you to come up with some solutions to combat the problem.

Being a parent

If parents are unhappy, depressed or worried, they tend to pay less attention to their children. They may find they can't spend the time they need to help them play constructively, or they may find that when they do play with them, they spend a lot of time telling them to be quiet.

Children learn from this that they have to be naughty or noisy to get any attention from their mum or dad.

No clear rules

It is important to have simple rules about what is allowed and what is not. If two parents are involved, they both need to agree about the rules, and be consistent and fair when they say 'no'. This will help the child to know what is expected and to learn self-control (see good parenting and behavioural and conduct problems).

Temperament

We are all born with different temperaments. Some children are livelier, noisier and more outgoing than others. They may prefer going out and being with other people than quietly reading a book or playing with toys by themselves.

Quite often, children who are active like this are also excitable and may go over the top while playing. Although this can be a nuisance, it is nothing to worry about, but you may need some help in finding ways to help your child calm down.

Learning problems

Some children find it hard to learn things that other children find easy. They may need special help at school. They may seem quite young for their age and find it hard to concentrate on work or control their behaviour as well as other children (see general learning disability).

Hearing problems

Glue ear is a common example of a hearing problem. If a child has glue ear, they will find it hard to hear what other people say, will tend to shout and may want the television turned up very loudly.

Food

Some children do seem to react to certain foods by becoming restless and irritable. This is not as common as some people think, but occasionally, it can be a real problem.

If you are concerned that your child is affected by attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or hyperkinetic disorder (hyperactivity), see  ADHD and hyperkinetic disorder for further information.

Try to make sure you spend time with your child on their own, so that they know you are interested in them. This will give you the chance to plan and praise.

Plan

Spend time with your children doing something they enjoy. Get into a routine and plan what they are going to be doing for the day or the weekend.

It is helpful to arrange to have friends to come and play, (encouraging their social development) and gives you a break when they are invited back!

It is also helpful to engage them in regular activities such as football or trampoline sessions, cubs, brownies etc. because this gives you a chance to meet other parents who can provide an informal support network. You can also make clear times when you expect them to play quietly on their own.

Praise

Take every opportunity to praise your child. Be as clear as possible. It is vital that they understand exactly what they have done to please you.

For example, “you've been playing so quietly on your own… what a good boy you are” or “what a good footballer you are”.

Lively, excitable behaviour is a common problem for parents. Your health visitor will be used to giving advice about this. If there seems to be a problem with your child's hearing, or if there seems to be a reaction to foods, your general practitioner should be able to help and refer to a specialist if required.

If they think that there might be a learning difficulty or a hyperactivity disorder, they will refer you to a clinical psychologist, paediatrician or Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

Ron was my first son. He was always a lively energetic one, even as a toddler - early to walk and run. I could not keep up the pace and would feel exhausted running after him. It drove me nuts.

When he was 6 I met Linda, his classmate’s mum. She told she had same difficulties with her son, but then she attended a parenting group and it was really helpful. She said it took some time, but it was really basic and it made all the difference. I agreed to give it a try.

At first I didn't think the group was for me as I found it difficult to talk to strangers about my difficulties controlling my child...but I soon it was OK. All the parents had had similar experiences. Just talking to others made it feel much easier. I was not shouting at Ron “stop it” all the time.

I was more tolerant, I praised him when he ate his breakfast and gave him a hug. It seemed all calmer, even Ron seemed to notice the difference. He seemed a happier child, listening to me. When I wanted him to really do something, I would just look at him, speak to him calmly and tell him what to do, in simple words. No long explanations. Just few words and it worked. So simple.

Ron loves his evening time before tea on his bike while I walk the dog. I feel it has worked out well … just in time.

Family Lives - Parentline offers help and advice to parents bringing up children and teenagers. Helpline 0808 800 2222.

Positive Parenting - Organisation has a useful website offering training, resources and literature.

Further reading

Stallard P. Parenting Pre-School ChildrenHow to Books is a useful and practical book.

Webster Stratton, C. (1992): The Incredible Years: A Troubleshooting Guide

References

The Young Mind: an essential guide to mental health for young adults, parents and teachers. Edited by Bailey, S. and Shooter, M. (2009)

Rutter, M. & Taylor, E. (eds) (2008) 'Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry' (5th edn). London: Blackwell Publishing.

Credits

Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

With grateful thanks to Dr Kate Gingell, Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy..

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

About this information

This information reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing. Our mental health information for young people was written in 2017 and will be reviewed in 2020.

©  March  2017 Royal College of Psychiatrists