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Child Behavior Problems

Most children misbehave at times. Some children may temporarily act out due to stressful life events, such as the birth of a sibling, a divorce or a death in the family. 

Behavior disorders are far more serious, however. Children and adolescents with a pattern of hostile, aggressive or disruptive behaviors for more than 6 months—in a way not age-appropriate—can be diagnosed with a behavior problem. More common in boys than girls, most disruptive disorders are diagnosed in childhood.

Behavior problems may disturb a child’s ability to learn or interact with others, leading to a disrupted home, school failure, problems with the police, mental health problems or suicide. Poor choices can become habits. Similar to other disorders, behavioral disorders show: 

    • Distinctive signs or symptoms 
    • Significant impairment
    • Patterns of other disorders or conditions (comorbidity)
    • Response to specific treatments 
    • Prevention with early intervention  

Warning signs

    • Harming or threatening themselves, other people or pets
    • Destroying property or stealing
    • Doing poorly in school, skipping school or not responding to requests 
    • Early smoking, drinking, drug use or sexual activity
    • Frequent tantrums and arguments 
    • Lying, showing hostility toward authority figures


It is not known exactly why children develop disruptive behavior or conduct disorders. The following may play a role:

    • Genetic factors
    • Environmental and social factors 
    • Quality of early childhood, including abuse or neglect, harsh or inconsistent parenting
    • When parents have mental health conditions. Children in families where explosive verbal and physically abusive behaviors are common are more likely to show similar behaviors as they mature, for example.
    • Parents reporting a very young child was more rigid and demanding than siblings 
    • School failure
    • Trauma or other mental health problems 
    • Such as exposure to violence or criminal behavior or other traumatic life experiences
    • Those with other disorders including disruptive behaviors, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    • Differences in how brains work in terms of brain structure, function and chemistry, or brain damage

Two theories for why ODD occurs

Developmental theory suggests problems start when children are toddlers. Children and teens with ODD may have had trouble learning to become independent from a parent or other caregiver.

Learning theory suggests ODD symptoms are learned attitudes that mirror the effects of negative attention used by parents and others in power. Negative reinforcement increases ODD behaviors, because it allows the child to get what s/he wants: attention and reaction.


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