Behavioral Disorders in Children: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Behavioral disorders are pervasive problems that can be just as distressing for a child as they are for adults in their life. Explore the characteristics and symptoms of specific types of behavioral disorders. Updated: 02/06/2022


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:

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