Behavioral Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What are the signs of behavioral problems?

Behavior is an action or reaction to the environment or to internal thoughts and emotions. Behavioral symptoms are persistent or repetitive behaviors that are unusual, disruptive, inappropriate, or cause problems. Aggression, criminal behavior, defiance, drug use, hostility, inappropriate sexual behavior, inattention, secrecy, and self-harm are examples of behavioral symptoms. Only 30% of children with developmental or behavior disorder are identified prior to starting school, meaning the majority of affected children miss out on the opportunity to participate in early intervention.

In children, behavioral symptoms may be indications of behavioral disorders, such as conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder. Behavioral symptoms can also be associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, or Asperger’s syndrome. Lead poisoning is another potential cause of behavior disorders in children. In adolescents and adults, behavioral symptoms can result from personality disorders or psychiatric illnesses. Traumatic brain injury and medical disorders that affect the brain can also cause behavioral symptoms.

Substance abuse is another potential cause of behavioral symptoms, or may be a complication of conditions that cause behavioral symptoms. If it is a complication of another condition, substance abuse can make behavioral symptoms worse.

Behavioral symptoms can occasionally result from serious medical conditions that can have life-threatening complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for symptoms, such as severe injury or thoughts of suicide and self harm. If your or your child’s behavioral symptoms are persistent, are causing other problems, or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with behavioral symptoms?

Behavioral symptoms may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that frequently affect behavior may also involve other body systems.

Psychiatric and cognitive symptoms that may occur along with behavioral symptoms

Behavioral symptoms may accompany other psychiatric or cognitive symptoms including:

  • Anxiety, agitation or irritability

  • Confusion, forgetfulness or disconnectedness

  • Difficulty understanding social cues

  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading

  • Disturbances in perception or thought processes (psychoses), such as hallucinations and delusions

  • Feelings of being mistreated or misunderstood

  • Feelings of emptiness or worthlessness

  • Mood depression or elevation

  • Poor judgment

  • Withdrawal and depression

Other symptoms that may occur along with behavioral symptoms

Behavioral symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, behavioral symptoms may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

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

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

What causes behavioral symptoms?

Abnormal brain chemistry, injury, or structural abnormalities may play a role in the development of behavioral symptoms. Genetics may play a role, as some conditions that have behavioral symptoms are more common in people who have a family history of mental illness or substance abuse. Environment factors, such as an unstable home life, child abuse, lack of supervision, and inconsistent discipline, also seem to contribute to some conditions associated with behavioral symptoms.

Diseases, disorders or conditions that interfere with thought processes, such as conduct disorders, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and a number of personality disorders, can be associated with behavioral symptoms. Conditions that affect the brain can also have behavioral symptoms.

Psychiatric and cognitive causes of behavioral symptoms

Behavioral symptoms may be caused by psychiatric or cognitive diseases, disorders or conditions including:

Other causes of behavioral symptoms

Behavioral symptoms can also be caused by other diseases, disorders or conditions including:

Serious or life-threatening causes of behavioral symptoms

In some cases, behavioral symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of behavioral symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your behavioral symptoms including:

  • What is your current relationship to your family?
  • When did you first notice the behavioral symptoms?
  • Which behavioral symptoms have you noticed?
  • Have they created problems at home, in school, or at work?
  • Have they caused any financial or legal problems? 
  • Who are your friends and how do you spend time together?
  • Are any other symptoms present?
  • What medications are you using?
  • Are you drinking alcohol?
  • Are you using any illicit drugs?

What are the potential complications of behavioral symptoms?

Because behavioral symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage, memory loss, attention difficulties, and impaired judgment
  • Developmental delays
  • Difficulties at work, in school, in social environments, and with relationships
  • Drug and alcohol use and abuse
  • Drug overdose or alcohol poisoning
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Law violations and legal troubles
  • Self-harm
  • Social isolation
  • Suicide or violence
Was this helpful?
  1. Child behavior disorders. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  2. Conduct disorder. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
  3. Glascoe FP. Screening for developmental and behavioral problems. Ment Retard Dev Disabil Res Rev 2005; 11:173.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 8
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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.