Behavioral Disorders

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What are behavioral disorders?

Behavioral disorders typically develop in childhood or adolescence. While some behavioral issues may be normal in children, those who have behavioral disorders develop chronic patterns of aggression, defiance, disruption and hostility. Their behaviors cause problems at home, school or work, and can interfere with relationships. Children with behavioral disorders may develop personality disorders, depression, or bipolar disorder as adults.

Children with behavioral disorders may throw frequent and extended tantrums, hurt themselves or others, get involved in criminal activities, lie, smoke, use alcohol or drugs, be openly defiant, or engage in early sexual activity. They may skip or fail school. They also have a higher than average risk of suicide.

Although the cause of behavioral disorders is not known, risk factors have been identified, such as family history of mental illness or substance abuse, exposure to tobacco or illicit drugs during fetal development, abuse, stress, lack of supervision, and inconsistent but harsh discipline. Children with behavioral disorders may have other mental, emotional or behavioral disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There may also be overlap with developmental delay. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends routine screening for developmental delay as part of routine well-child examinations.

Severe or long-standing behavioral disorders can be difficult to treat; however, early recognition and intervention can be quite helpful. Treatment often focuses on skill development for the child and parents. Involvement of a health care professional is often necessary. Educational, community and social programs may also be available.

Violent, destructive and risky actions can be part of behavioral disorders and can lead to serious harm or legal problems. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your child is engaging in threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior, or if your child has suffered a serious injury, has overdosed on drugs, has alcohol poisoning, or has any other conditions that require emergency attention.

Seek prompt medical care if your child gets into trouble frequently, has significant mood swings, engages in harmful or destructive behaviors, uses alcohol or drugs, has problems sleeping, or is having other issues that cause you concern.

What are the symptoms of behavioral disorders?

All children have occasional behavioral issues. Problems that last more than six months and are more severe than those of peers may indicate that a behavioral disorder is present. These problems can develop into chronic patterns of aggression, hostility, defiance and disruption.

Common symptoms of behavioral disorders

Common symptoms of behavioral disorders include:

  • Early sexual activity

  • Frequent or extended tantrums

  • Hostility

  • Lying

  • Open defiance of authority figures and parents

  • Property destruction

  • Rage

  • Self-destructive behaviors

  • Skipping school

  • Theft

  • Use of alcohol or drugs

  • Violent and aggressive acts, such as bullying, fighting, or animal cruelty

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, behavioral disorders can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your child has any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Alcohol poisoning symptoms, such as slow breathing, not breathing, slow heart rate, persistent vomiting, cold and clammy skin, bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails, seizures, confusion or loss of consciousness for even a moment

  • Being a danger to oneself or others, including threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior

  • Drug overdose symptoms, such as rapid or slow pulse or breathing, chest pain or pressure, not breathing, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, cool and clammy skin, hot skin, sleepiness, confusion or loss of consciousness for even a moment

  • Trauma, such as bone deformity, burns, eye injuries, and other injuries

What causes behavioral disorders?

The specific cause of behavioral disorders is not known, but a number of factors may contribute to their development. Genetics may play a role, as behavioral disorders are more common in children who have a family history of mental illness or substance abuse. Environment factors, such as unstable home life, child abuse, lack of supervision, and inconsistent discipline, all seem to increase the risk of children developing behavioral disorders.

What are the risk factors for behavioral disorders?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing behavioral disorders. Not all people with risk factors will develop behavioral disorders. Risk factors for behavioral disorders include:

  • Child abuse
  • Difficulty interpreting the actions or intent of others
  • Family history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Fetal exposure to tobacco or illicit drugs
  • Inconsistent, harsh discipline
  • Lack of supervision
  • Male gender
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Poor social skills
  • Stressful home or school environment
  • Unstable home life (unsupervised, transient, homelessness)

Reducing your child’s risk of behavioral disorders

A supportive, stable and consistent home environment may be helpful in reducing your child’s risk of developing behavioral disorders. You may be able to lower your child’s risk of behavioral disorders by:

  • Allowing your child to make concrete but limited decisions, such as choosing between a white or green shirt
  • Developing a clear system of rewards and punishments
  • Disciplining selectively based on the severity of the incident
  • Getting involved in your child’s activities
  • Redirecting your child to a safe and appropriate environment for activities
  • Reducing sources of stress at home
  • Rewarding appropriate behavior
  • Setting clear expectations

How are behavioral disorders treated?

Regular medical care for your child is an important first step in the prevention and treatment of behavioral disorders. This allows a health care professional to screen for and evaluate potential symptoms of a behavioral disorder.

Treatment often focuses on skill development for the child and parents. Children may benefit from cognitive development programs, social interaction skills training, and adaptive skills training. Parental skills training can also be beneficial. Educational, community and social programs may be available.

Psychological assessments and psychotherapy or other types of therapy may be helpful, especially if mood or other disorders are also present.

What you can do to improve your child's behavioral disorder

Part of the parenting skills training focuses on learning interventions to help improve your child’s behavior. These interventions include:

  • Allowing your child to make concrete but limited decisions, such as choosing between a white or green shirt
  • Avoiding inadvertently punishing improved behavior by suggesting it wasn’t good enough
  • Avoiding rationalizing and ignoring poor behavior
  • Avoiding reinforcing bad behaviors by giving in to the child’s demands
  • Developing a clear system of rewards and punishments
  • Disciplining selectively based on the severity of the incident and only when you are calm
  • Getting involved in your child’s activities
  • Modeling and teaching your child acceptable behaviors
  • Redirecting your child to a safe and appropriate environment for activities
  • Reducing stress at home
  • Rewarding appropriate behavior
  • Setting clear expectations

What are the potential complications of behavioral disorders?

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled behavioral disorders can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your child’s risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for your child. Complications of behavioral disorders include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Development of personality disorders
  • Difficulties holding a job
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Law violations and legal troubles
  • Peer relationship problems
  • Scholastic problems or failure
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Social isolation
  • Suicide
  • Violent behavior
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 25
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Child behavior disorders. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/childbehaviordisorders.html
  2. Conduct disorder. PubMed Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001917/
  3. Glascoe FP. Parents' evaluations of developmental status: a method for detecting and addressing developmental and behavioral problems in children. PEDSTest.com, LLC. Nolensville, TN, 2010.