Behavioral Disorders & Problems Guides & Articles

Leigh Morgan
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Erin George, MFT
Medical Editor

What Is a Behavioral Disorder?

While common in both children and adults, behavioral disorders are most often diagnosed in childhood and can be treated early on. The sooner a person addresses a behavioral disorder, the better the odds they'll be able to manage symptoms throughout their lifetime. Children with behavioral disorders have disruptive patterns of behavior. These patterns last for at least 6 months and cause problems at home, school, and in social settings. 1 At home, parents may find it difficult to enforce rules or set appropriate boundaries. Children with this type of disorder may act aggressively toward their siblings or have frequent tantrums, leading to high levels of family conflict.

In a school setting, a behavioral disorder may make a child talk out of turn, refuse to follow the rules, or fidget excessively. Some students refuse to attend school, leading to chronic truancy. 2 Schools respond to this problem in a variety of ways, but a student may be suspended, expelled, or even referred to truancy court if they have an excessive number of absences during the academic year. 3 These consequences may interfere with a parent's ability to work, as a student who's suspended or expelled needs to be monitored during school hours.

Behavioral disorders also make it more difficult for children to build friendships and enjoy social activities. For example, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) causes some children to interrupt frequently. This makes other people frustrated, which has the potential to interfere with relationships.

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Types of Behavioral Disorders

ADHD, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) are some of the most common behavioral problems in children. Children with the inattentive type of ADHD struggle to focus and stay organized. 4 The impulsive/hyperactive type causes excessive movement, making it difficult for a child to sit still. Some children have the combined type of ADHD, which causes symptoms of inattention and impulsivity/hyperactivity.

Conduct disorder is a group of disorders characterized by emotional-behavioral problems. These problems stem from a disregard for other people. 5 A child with a conduct disorder may behave aggressively or engage in violence toward parents, siblings, or other family members. ODD causes a child to act in a defiant manner. Children with this condition have trouble following the rules and often treat other people with hostility. Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) is less common than the other three, but it does affect some children. IED causes sudden outbursts of disruptive behavior, such as temper tantrums or high levels of irritability. 6

All of these behavioral problems cause conflict at home, at school, and in the community. In severe cases, a behavioral disorder may lead to property damage or harm caused to a person or an animal living in the home.

What Causes Behavioral Disorders?

Researchers haven't identified a single direct cause of behavioral disorders, but genetic and social factors play a role. These disorders are much more common in children who have been exposed to violence or inconsistent parenting, demonstrating the importance of providing a safe, loving environment. 7

The risk of behavioral disorders also increases in children whose parents have ADHD, depression, substance use disorders, and other mental health conditions. Behavioral problems may even be the result of structural changes in the brain. For example, in people with ADHD, changes to the prefrontal cortex may lead to forgetfulness, impulsivity, and other symptoms. 8

What Are the Symptoms of Behavioral Disorders? Signs to Know

Each behavioral disorder has a specific list of diagnostic criteria. Some criteria apply to several disorders, making it crucial for a mental health professional to conduct an assessment and make an appropriate diagnosis.

  • ADHD (inattentive type): Difficulty staying organized, forgetfulness, trouble following through on tasks, inability to focus 9
  • ADHD (impulsive/hyperactive type): Fidgeting, squirming, excessive talking, interrupting, running around during school
  • Conduct disorder: Bullying, truancy, stealing, lying, cheating, cruelty toward animals or people
  • ODD: Frequent arguing, temper tantrums, refusing to follow rules, irritability, vindictive behavior
  • IED: Angry outbursts, frequent tantrums, theft, property damage, defiance, aggressive behavior

Do I Have a Behavioral Disorder? How Are They Diagnosed?

A diagnostic evaluation is the first step in determining if a child has a behavior disorder. During this evaluation, an expert in childhood development gathers information about the child's symptoms, medical history, and home environment. 10 The expert also observes the child's posture, facial expressions, and gestures. After the assessment, a specialist works with the parents to help them understand their child's behavior and explore potential treatment options.

What Is the Best Treatment for Behavioral Disorders?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), parent behavior therapy has the strongest evidence supporting its use as a treatment for behavioral disorders. 11 Parents who adopt this approach work with a trained therapist to learn helpful techniques for managing a child's behavior.

Parent behavior therapy programs typically emphasize consistent discipline and positive reinforcement, giving children the opportunity to replace unwanted behaviors with more desirable ones. 12 Some programs have parents attend group sessions, rather than working one-on-one with a therapist. Addressing behavioral problems at a young age makes it easier to manage behavioral disorders in adults, making parent behavior therapy a helpful option.

How to Cope With a Behavioral Disorder Diagnosis

Children with these disorders should spend as much time as possible learning strategies to help them manage their symptoms. For example, using a planner or developing a homework routine can help children with ADHD stay focused. 13 Self-care is also important, although parents may need to help their children develop healthy habits. Quality sleep, well-balanced meals, and a calm environment can all make it easier to manage the symptoms of a behavioral disorder. Adults should consider talk therapy, support group meetings, and other methods of coping with a mental health diagnosis.

How to Help Someone with a Behavioral Disorder

Behavioral disorders are usually diagnosed in childhood, so it's critical for parents and other family members to provide ongoing support. Parents can help by participating in parent behavior therapy and setting aside time to help a child learn strategies for symptom management.

Adults with these disorders also need support, although that support looks a bit different. For example, people with severe symptoms may benefit from having someone help them with household chores. If they don't have to focus on chores, they can spend more time talking with a therapist or trying other treatment options. It's also helpful for loved ones to give positive feedback and provide encouragement.


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