North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

How to identify and support childhood behaviour disorders

Posted on: March 19, 2024
Sad and lonely boy sitting alone on the floor against the room wall

The period from infancy to adolescence is a transformative time, and not all children will pass through these critical developmental stages without encountering some issues along the way. Many children will – from time to time – become argumentative, resistant, defiant, angry, or even aggressive; in fact, while they may exhibit any number of unwanted behaviours, this does not necessarily mean they are showing signs of an underlying disorder.

However, identifying whether a child is going through a phase – or dealing with something more significant that is affecting their emotions, feelings or behaviour – is not always straightforward.

What are some different childhood behaviour disorders?

There are a variety of behaviour disorders that fall into categories such as anxiety disorders, emotional and mood disorders, disruptive behavioural disorders, pervasive development disorders and dissociative disorders.

According to NHS and NICE reports, conduct disorders and associated antisocial behaviour were previously considered the most common mental and behavioural problems in children and young people, however more recent data suggest that emotional disorders and behavioural disorders have a similar prevalence.

Examples of common emotional and behaviour disorders that affect school-age children include:

  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Conduct Disorder (CD)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

While the exact causes are unknown, there are a number of risk factors related to behavioural disorders in children.

  • Gender. Experts cannot pinpoint whether it’s genetic or related to socialisation, but boys are far more likely to suffer from behavioural disorders than girls.
  • Gestation and birth. Factors such as low birth weight, premature birth and difficulties during pregnancy can impact a child’s behaviour in later life.
  • Temperament. Children who exhibit problem behaviour – for example, being aggressive, volatile or difficult to manage – from a young age are at an increased risk of developing behavioural disorders.
  • Family life. Incidences of behavioural disorders are more likely to occur in dysfunctional family settings, such as those featuring poor parenting skills, substance abuse, domestic violence or poverty.
  • Learning difficulties. Issues with reading and writing are often linked to behaviour problems.
  • Intellectual disabilities. Children are twice as likely to have a behavioural disorder if they have an intellectual disability.
  • Brain development. In cases of children with ADHD, research shows that parts of the brain that control attention are less active.

What are the symptoms of behaviour disorders in children?

Occasional temper tantrums, refusals to sit still and short-term frustrated outbursts do not automatically signify an emotional or behaviour disorder – they are all very normal types of behaviour that children may exhibit as they grow and develop. However, if disruptive behaviours are severe, persist for more than six months, or are uncommon for the child’s age, it could signal that they have an emotional or behavioural disorder. Additionally, behaviour disorders are likely to negatively impact relationships with friends and family members, as well as performance at school.

It is rare for a child under five-years-old to receive a diagnosis of a behavioural disorder. Nonetheless, young children can still present with symptoms of a disorder that may be diagnosed further down the line.

Behavioural disorder symptoms that caregivers can keep an eye out for include:

  • drastic changes in personality or behaviour
  • extreme inattention, impulsivity and fidgeting
  • intense worries that impact daily activities
  • difficulties handling frustration
  • frequent outbursts or tantrums
  • feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, annoyance or anger
  • consistent hostility towards authority figures
  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • lying or stealing
  • getting into frequent physical fights and arguments
  • damaging or destroying property
  • changes in appetite
  • harming or threatening to hurt themselves or others
  • declining school performance.

In adolescents, symptoms may also include early smoking, drinking, drug use or sexual activity, and neglecting personal hygiene and appearance.

While these behaviours are often deeply worrying, frustrating and draining, mental health experts state the importance for a calm temperament, empathy, patience and a cooperative attitude when supporting children with mental health problems.

Knowing when, and who, to ask for advice is key. There are a wealth of resources available should you require further information about specific behavioural disorders, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Facts for Families database. Of course, seeking a referral to a mental health professional, GP or paediatrician for further advice and support is also advised if a child’s behaviour becomes concerning.

Only a qualified professional – such as a psychologist or psychiatrist – can diagnose a behaviour disorder. Diagnosis requires a professional evaluation that takes into account symptoms, medical history and background. Gaining testimonials and accounts from teachers, social workers and other caregivers helps to paint a fuller picture of a child’s behaviour.

What are common treatments for childhood behaviour disorders?

Whatever behavioural disorder a child is struggling with, doing the utmost – both at school and home – to support their physical and mental health and wellbeing is paramount.

There are a range of treatment options and interventions that can help a child to manage their disorder and its symptoms. The quicker that a child receives a diagnosis and a treatment plan, the quicker that measures can be put in place to support their health, wellbeing and development. While the specifics of any plan will depend on the child’s unique situation and the disorder they are suffering with, useful treatments generally include family therapy – as disorders affects everyone, parent training to deal with the behavioural issues, interventions that boost their self-esteem, being mindful of specific stressors, and support with adhering to their plan.

Gain the skills to support children and young people with a wide range of behavioural disorders

Are you passionate about helping children with emotional, behavioural and conduct problems?

Develop your classroom and professional practice to give children the best start in life with North Wales Management School’s online MSc Educational Psychology programme.

If you’re interested in using psychological expertise and tools to transform educational experiences, and are ready to take your career to the next level, our flexible course can help you to achieve your aims. As well as exploring the role of the educational psychologist, you’ll study the key principles that underpin learning and development and a wide range of specialist topics including additional learning needs, behaviour disorders, psychological assessments, forensic psychology, and more.