Diagnosing Behavioral Problems in Children
All children and adolescents act out from time to time—having tantrums, testing boundaries, or questioning rules—especially if they’re overly distressed or tired. In fact, such behavior is an expected part of development in toddlers and young teens. But when behavioral problems disrupt a child’s family, school, and social life, it may indicate a more serious condition.
Oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder are two types of behavioral disorders in children and teens. Other conditions may have similar symptoms or appear at the same time in a child with behavioral problems, including anxiety and other mood disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autism spectrum disorders.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Children and teens with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) have a recurrent pattern of defiant and hostile behavior toward parents, teachers, or other authority figures that interferes with their day-to-day lives. Behaviors include frequent tantrums, excessive arguing with adults, and refusal to comply with an adult’s requests or rules. A child may try to annoy or upset people and may harbor anger or resentment. These symptoms may be more noticeable at home or at school, but they can be present in many places.
Signs of the disorder usually appear before age eight, but more serious symptoms may develop later. Symptoms tend to begin gradually, then worsen over months or years. The condition is common among children and teens with ADHD. Both disorders share common symptoms of disruptive behaviors. However, children and adolescents who have both ODD and ADHD tend to be more aggressive, have more negative behavioral symptoms of ODD, and perform worse in school than those who have ODD alone.
To receive a diagnosis of ODD, a child must engage in at least four of the following behaviors on a frequent basis: losing his or her temper, arguing with and defying adults, blaming others for his or her own errors or misconduct, being easily annoyed by others, or deliberately trying to annoy other people.
Children with conduct disorder (CD) behave aggressively toward others or violate rules or laws—for example, by skipping school or shoplifting. There are four categories of conduct disorder behaviors: aggressive, destructive, deceitful, and violating rules.
Aggressive behavior includes threatening or harming people or animals, fighting with others, using weapons, and committing sexual assault. Destructive behavior involves damaging property. Deceitful behavior may include repeated lying, shoplifting, or stealing. A child who violates rules may engage in inappropriate behavior, such as running away from home, skipping school, or being sexually active at a very young age.
To receive a diagnosis of CD, a child must engage in at least three of the following behaviors for the prior 12 months, and at least one in the prior six months:
- bullying, threatening, or intimidating others
- initiating fights
- using a weapon that can harm others
- harming people or animals
- assaulting someone sexually
- setting fire in order to cause damage
- deliberately destroying property
- breaking into a house, building, or car
- lying to obtain goods or favors or to avoid obligations
- staying out at night despite parental prohibitions, beginning before age 13
- running away from home overnight at least twice, or once without returning for a lengthy period
- being absent from school, beginning before age 13
To diagnose a behavioral problem in a child or adolescent, an expert trained in childhood development and behavior meets with you and your child to perform a comprehensive evaluation.
Source: NYU Langone Health | Diagnosing Behavioral Problems in Children, https://nyulangone.org/conditions/behavioral-problems-in-children/diagnosis | © 2023 NYU Langone Hospitals
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