What Are Behavioral Disorders in Children?

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What Are Behavioral Disorders?

Behavioral disorders

Behavioral disorders in children are patterns of behavior that can affect a child's ability to function at home, in school, or in social settings. Such symptoms are present for six months or longer.

Behavioral disorders in children can create a number of challenges and difficulties in a child's life. Such conditions can lead to social problems, academic difficulties, and disciplinary issues in different settings.

If you are concerned about your child's behavior, it can be helpful to learn more about some of the conditions that can contribute to behavioral issues in childhood. Getting intervention can help your child develop skills that will help them deal with some of these challenges and help you adapt as a parent so that you can better support your child.

It is important to remember that even if your child struggles with challenging behaviors, it does not necessarily mean that they have a diagnosable mental health condition. And being diagnosed with a behavioral disorder does not mean that a child should be labeled in a negative way.

Sometimes behaviors might be viewed as problems because they do not conform to what a child is expected to do in a particular setting.

In such cases, recognizing a child's needs and characteristics can help parents, teachers, and caregivers adapt experiences and provide interventions and accommodations that will help ease stress and allow kids to engage with their environment in a way that works for their individual needs.

Characteristics of Behavioral Disorders in Children

Behavioral disorders tend to be characterized by behaviors that are considered disruptive. Because these conditions involve directing actions outwards toward other people, they are sometimes known as externalizing disorders.

These disorders sometimes involve:

Not all behavior problems indicate the presence of a condition, and most kids experience some type of disruptive behavior from time to time. But if a child's behavior lasts six months or longer and impacts their home, social, or academic life, you should talk to your child's doctor.

Diagnosis of Behavioral Disorders in Children

The diagnosis of behavioral disorders in children usually involves an evaluation of their symptoms. Your child's doctor may start by asking questions about your child's behavior. They will also look at your child's background and medical history.

Diagnosis may also involve screenings, psychological assessments, and interviews with other individuals, such as your child's teachers and caregivers. While you might be able to recognize signs of a behavioral disorder, only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis. 

Behavioral disorders are rarely diagnosed in children before the age of five. Occasional temper tantrums and other disruptive behaviors are common in kids during early childhood.

Research indicates that more than 80% of all preschoolers have tantrums once in a while. Such outbursts are often short-term, and kids outgrow them as they acquire new coping skills.

Causes of Behavioral Disorders in Children

Behavioral disorders in children do not have a single identifiable cause. Instead, numerous factors play a role in the onset of different behavioral issues. Some factors that can contribute to the onset of a behavioral disorder include:

  • Differences in brain chemistry and structure: Some research suggests that differences in brain development, chemistry, and structure may contribute to some behavioral conditions. Neurotransmitter levels and the brain's response to different chemicals can also contribute to differences in behavior.
  • Genetics: Certain behavioral disorders tend to run in families, which suggests that genetic factors may contribute to these conditions.
  • Sex and gender: Behavioral disorders are more common in male children. This might be influenced by biological factors, but societal expectations about traditional gender roles may also impact how kids behave. For example, while boys exhibit more physical aggression, girls are more likely to engage in verbal or relational aggression.
  • Traumatic experiences: Children exposed to stress and trauma are more likely to have behavioral issues. Such traumas may stem from abuse and neglect. Research has also found that children raised by authoritarian parents are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. Children who experience socioeconomic stressors may be more likely to have behavioral issues.

Types of Behavioral Disorders in Children

Some conditions that may contribute to behavior issues in children include the following.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurobehavioral condition that is usually first diagnosed in childhood. It involves characteristic behavior patterns that may involve hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. Children with these characteristics may have more difficulty paying attention, staying on task, and controlling their behaviors.

Characteristics of ADHD can include:

  • Being easily distracted
  • Getting bored easily
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Restlessness
  • Disruptive, loud behaviors
  • Interrupting others
  • Acting impulsively

Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder (CD) is characterized by aggression toward others. Children with this condition violate social norms with peers, at home, and in school. 

Kids who have conduct disorder may:

  • Bully or threaten others
  • Get into physical fights
  • Behave in cruel ways toward people and animals
  • Destroy property
  • Steal or lie for personal gain
  • Engage in delinquent behaviors

Oppositional-Defiant Disorder (ODD)

Oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD) is a condition that typically begins in childhood and is characterized by patterns of aggression and misbehavior. The condition's primary symptoms involve anger, defiant behavior, and vindictiveness.

Children with ODD tend to:

  • Have frequent temper tantrums
  • Have a low tolerance for frustration
  • Lie, intentionally annoy others and create conflict
  • Are moody and easily annoyed
  • Refuse to comply with requests

Other conditions can also contribute to disruptive behavior in children. Autistic children may also behave in unexpected ways in different situations because of the differences in how they relate to the world. Anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, learning disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may also contribute to disruptive behaviors.

Treatment for Behavioral Disorders in Children

Treatment for behavioral disorders in children depends on the nature, type, and severity of the problems a child is experiencing. In many cases, interventions will focus on:

  • Family therapy: Children with behavioral disorders often benefit if parents, siblings, and other family members attend therapy sessions together. Family therapy can improve relationships and communication while reducing conflicts.
  • Individual therapy: Different types of psychotherapy can help children learn to manage behavior. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach that can help kids learn to identify and change thoughts contributing to behavioral issues.
  • Medication: While there is no medication specifically to treat behavioral disorders, certain medications may help children manage different symptoms they might be experiencing.
  • Parent education: Children with behavioral issues can also benefit if parents learn how to respond to behavior issues more effectively. Parent education often focuses on behavior management strategies.
  • Residential treatment: In some cases, a child's behavior may become out of control and require more intensive treatment to help keep them and others safe. 

Recap

Treatment for behavioral disorders in children depends on the nature of the child's condition and the severity of their symptoms. Family therapy, individual therapy, medication, parent training, and residential treatment are a few options that might be recommended.

Coping With Behavioral Disorders in Children

Utilizing effective behavior management strategies in the home can help parents and children better cope with behavioral issues.

Some tactics that can help include:

  • Creating consistent structure in the home
  • Offer clear rules and instructions
  • Setting and enforcing limits on behavior
  • Utilizing positive reinforcement to encourage the desired behaviors
  • Using time-outs to reduce the likelihood of behavioral outbursts or inappropriate behavior

A Word From Verywell

Most kids misbehave on occasion, and having temper tantrums and other behavioral outbursts once in a while is usually not a cause for concern. However, if your child is experiencing long-lasting patterns of behavior problems that create distress, interfere with their ability to function in different areas, or pose a risk of harm to your child or others, it is essential to seek help.

Talk to your child’s doctor for more information and further evaluation. Early intervention can often lead to better outcomes and fewer disruptions in a child’s life.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.