When “Bad Behavior” Is Something More: Identifying and Treating Behavioral Disorders in Children

All children display various forms of bad or misbehaved behavior, but when is this behavior a sign of a behavioral disorder?  The Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders defines behavioral disorders as “an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors; an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.”

According to the Johns Hopkins University, behavioral disorders are “the most common reasons children are referred for mental health evaluations and treatment.” Behavioral disorders are sometimes also called emotional disorders.

Some behavioral disorders include ADD, ADHD, conduct disorder (CD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). A child with a behavioral disorder may be hyperactive, aggressive toward themselves or others, withdraw from any social interaction or display excessive fear/anxiety, immaturity for their age or developmental stage, and learning difficulties. On their own, these behaviors may seem normal. However, a child with a behavioral disorder will display these signs over a long period of time, and will not get better with changes in environment.

According to the CCBD, the specific cause of behavioral disorders is not known. Heredity, brain chemistry, diet, stress and the function of the family unit have all been researched; however, unlike mental illnesses with specific links to brain function, it is hard to determine what causes behavioral disorders. While those with mental illnesses can be treated with medication and therapy, it can be much more difficult to treat behavioral problems, especially those that cause a child to withdraw or avoid coping with their surroundings.

If a parent, guardian, teacher or other adult in a child’s life suspects a behavioral disorder, they should get in contact with a qualified mental health professional, which could be anyone from a school guidance counselor to a licensed child psychologist. These specialists will be able to distinguish behavioral disorders from “bad behavior.” Regardless of whether or not the child receives a diagnosis, the specialist can also help with a treatment plan from one-on-one or family therapy to medical prescriptions.

If the behaviors are new, or if a parent or guardian is just noticing them for the first time, keeping track of when, where and how the behaviors manifest will help the specialist greatly in defining whether the child has a behavioral disorder. Parents or guardians should do some research on their own regarding treatments for children in the same age or development group as their own child so they understand their options. By having more information, parents can work with specialists to determine the best plan of care for their child.

Looking for more information? Check out these articles:

When Behavioral Health Disorders Occupy the Classroom

Tips for Parenting Children with ADHD


Featured image by Aaron Gilson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

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