Behavioral Disorders in Children: Definition, Symptoms & Quiz

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Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Information Technology, and Literacy and has a master's in counseling psychology and business administration.

Behavioral disorders disrupt children and the people and things around them. Learn about the different types of behavioral problems, the symptoms, and more.

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All children misbehave at one point or another. As a child you might have gotten into trouble for not cleaning your room or arguing with a sibling. Although getting into trouble occasionally is a normal part of growing up, some children have behaviors that are extremely difficult to deal with and are not common for their age. For example, we would expect a preteen to become upset and yell from time to time as he's going through puberty; we would not expect a preteen to get upset at a teacher and attempt to burn down a school building. The former would be considered a normal behavior, while the latter would be a symptom of a behavioral disorder.

What Are Behavioral Disorders?

Behavioral disorders refers to a category of mental disorders that are characterized by persistent or repetitive behaviors that are uncommon among children of the same age, inappropriate, and disrupt others and activities around the child. In the example above, setting fire to a school building is very inappropriate and it is an uncommon thing for a preteen (or any person for that matter) to do. It also disrupts the school building, the people within the school, and the community as a whole. Furthermore, burning down a school is a criminal behavior.

The three most common types of behavior disorders are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and conduct disorder (CD). All three of these disorders along with their criteria for diagnosis are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

About 5-17% of children are thought to have a form of ADHD. There are three subtypes of ADHD. Each subtype is characterized by its primary symptoms. The symptoms of and subtypes of ADHD are:

  • ADHD predominantly inattentive type: difficulty paying attention for extended periods of time, trouble completing tasks, inability to focus on one thing, and turning in incomplete assignments
  • ADHD predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type: trouble sitting still, fidgeting, saying whatever comes to mind without thinking, and shopping without thinking about your purchases or finances (impulsive buying)
  • ADHD combined type: symptoms of both the inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive types

Conduct Disorder

More severe and criminal problem behaviors, such as burning down a school building, are associated with CD. CD is characterized by behaviors that violate the rights of others or major norms that are expected given the child's age. Symptoms of conduct disorder include:

  • Aggression towards people and animals: physical violence, armed robbery, sexual assault, and animal torture
  • Destruction of property: intentionally setting a fire and purposefully destroying others' possessions
  • Deceitfulness or theft: shoplifting, forgery, stealing things from unoccupied cars, and conning people
  • Serious rule violations: repeatedly breaking curfew, truancy before age 13, and running away at least twice

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

How do we classify behaviors that are aggressive, hostile, and irritable, but are not as severe as those related to CD? These type of behaviors are seen in children with ODD. It is important to note that ODD is only diagnosed when the behaviors are present more often than what is expected for children who have reached the same level of development and are in the same age group AND if the criteria for CD has not been met.

Symptoms of ODD include:

  • Being argumentative
  • Purposefully annoying people
  • Angry most of the time
  • Unwilling to accept blame for your mistakes
  • Irritable or easily annoyed
  • Have an urge to get back at people that you feel have wronged you

Risk Factors for Behavioral Disorders

Although we are unsure of what causes ADHD, ODD, and CD, there are several known risk factors. They include:

  • Gender: girls are less likely to experience behavioral disorders than boys.
  • Gestation and birth: children whose mothers reported having pregnancies that were difficult, babies who were underweight, and babies who were born prematurely are also more likely to have behavioral problems as children.
  • Temperament: children that were well-behaved and easygoing as infants are less likely to develop behavioral disorders as children.
  • Family problems: the more dysfunctional the family, the higher the risk that the children will develop behavioral disorders.
  • Learning problems: there is an association between behavior problems and reading and writing deficits.
  • Intellectual disabilities: children who suffer from intellectual disabilities, such as mental retardation, have double the risk of having a behavioral disorder than children without intellectual disabilities.
  • Brain development: researchers have discovered that certain parts of the brain that control attention are less active in those diagnosed with ADHD.

Lesson Summary

Behavioral disorders are a category of mental disorders that is found in the DSM. There are three types of behavioral disorders that are diagnosed in children. ADHD is characterized by hyperactive, impulsive, and/or inattentive behaviors. CD is characterized by behaviors that violate norms and infringe on the rights of others. ODD is characterized by hostile, angry, and irritable behaviors that are less severe than those found in CD.

There are several risk factors for behavioral disorders, including gender, family problems, and intellectual disabilities. So the next time you go to a grocery store and see a young boy throwing a tantrum in the middle of an aisle, ask yourself if this is normal behavior for his age group. If the child is two, your answer would probably be yes. But if the child is 14, he may very well have a behavioral problem.

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