Signs That Your Child May Have a Disruptive Behavior Disorder

How to tell if your child has a disruptive behavior and what to do

a young girl screaming

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It's common for children to display behavior problems such as tantrums, being defiant, talking back, and not listening. There's probably not a parent out there who's not familiar with the challenging behaviors kids can sometimes engage in as they mature, learn how to control their impulses, and test boundaries.


But in some cases, children may display behavior that may fall under the category of "disruptive behavior." As the term suggests, disruptive behaviors are just that—behaviors at home, school, and elsewhere that literally disrupt the normal flow of things. 

Disruptive behavior disorders are characterized by disruptive symptoms that occur across different environments and in multiple settings. For example, these behaviors occur at both home and school. 

Signs of Disruptive Behavior Disorders

Children with a disruptive behavior disorder will show repeated and persistent patterns of anger, defiance, backtalk, trouble managing and regulating their emotions, and even hostile or aggressive behavior toward grownups or other children. The behavior is basically what you might see in a typical child, but more—more intense, more frequent, more ongoing, and more difficult to control.

Not surprisingly, these behaviors will have a negative impact on how these kids perform in school and at home and will affect their social relationships with parents, siblings, teachers, and peers. 

The most common types of disruptive behavior disorders are oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder. An estimated six percent of children have oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder.

Symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Children with ODD exhibit behaviors that are less aggressive than conduct disorders but should still be addressed with interventions. People with a history of oppositional defiant disorder are at extreme risk of serious emotional adjustment difficulty, including suicide and substance abuse, and are more than 90% likely to be diagnosed with another mental illness.

Some symptoms of ODD include:

  • Blaming others for one's mistakes
  • Deliberately annoying others
  • Easily annoyed by others
  • Frequently arguing with adults
  • Frequently throwing temper tantrums and showing anger
  • Often vindictive and spiteful; seeking revenge
  • Resistance to authority—constantly refusing to follow rules or comply with requests from adults

These behaviors occur in multiple settings and may be aimed at parents, teachers, siblings, classmates, and other children.

Symptoms of Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder, in contrast, is more serious and may be associated with violent or aggressive acts. Conduct disorder is often diagnosed as ODD in younger children. Children who have conduct disorder typically ignore or abuse other people's feelings intentionally and ignore other people's rights.

Common signs of a conduct disorder include:

  • Abusing animals
  • Aggression toward other people (including bullying or making threats)
  • Attacking others physically
  • Cutting school
  • Lying
  • Refusal to follow rules or limits at home and at school (such as cutting school)
  • Stealing
  • Substance abuse
  • Vandalizing

As with other disruptive behavior disorders, these symptoms occur across multiple environments. In order to be diagnosed, they must occur in more than one setting such as at school and at home.

How to Help Your Child

If you suspect your child may have one of these disruptive behavior disorders, there are many steps you can take to help them. First steps include:

  • Act now to address concerns. School-age children are developing important skills academically and socially; anything that interferes with your child's ability to learn, follow directions, and make friends can have a big impact on personal development and how well the child does in school.
  • Look for other possibly-related conditions. Research has shown that many children who have been diagnosed with ADHD may also be diagnosed with ODD. Get the right diagnosis so that you can find the right course of action to help your child.
  • Don't minimize the seriousness of conduct disorders. If your child acts in an aggressive or violent way, take steps immediately to protect those around your child--and your child as well. Call your pediatrician and consult a pediatric mental health professional right away.
  • Know that you are not alone and that there are solutions. Many parents are dealing with behavior disorders at this very minute. Know that there are many qualified professionals who can help you find a solution that will work for your family. Treatments can include therapists working with parents and kids to help parents with setting limits, strengthening the parent-child bond, and reducing disruptive behaviors.
  • Praise positive behaviors. It is easy to place all of the focus on the negative, disruptive behavior, but make sure that you are taking steps to notice and praise positive behaviors. Praise is an effective way to increase good behaviors and encourage children to engage in more positive behaviors.
  • Take care of yourself. It can be enormously stressful dealing with a child who is aggressive, impulsive, and disobedient. Be sure to find ways to manage your own stress, whether it's through walking, talking to friends, meditation, or yoga.
  • Talk to your child's pediatrician. There are many resources and professionals who may be able to diagnose your child and provide information and assistance.

When you find yourself becoming angry and frustrated, take a few moments and step away from your child to calm down before you discipline your child.

A Word From Verywell

Disruptive behavior disorders can be distressing for parents and children, but there are treatment options available. Identifying the problem and getting help from a mental health professional can help parents and kids learn to manage behavioral issues.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Noordermeer SD, Luman M, Oosterlaan J. A. Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Neuroimaging in Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder (CD) Taking Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Into AccountNeuropsychol Rev. 2016;26(1):44–72. doi:10.1007/s11065-015-9315-8

  6. Forehand R, Jones DJ, Parent J. Behavioral parenting interventions for child disruptive behaviors and anxiety: what's different and what's the same. Clin Psychol Rev. 2013;33(1):133–145. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2012.10.010

  7. Moens MA, Weeland J, Van der Giessen D, Chhangur RR, Overbeek G. In the Eye of the Beholder? Parent-Observer Discrepancies in Parenting and Child Disruptive Behavior Assessments. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2018;46(6):1147–1159. doi:10.1007/s10802-017-0381-7

Additional Reading

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.