Behavioural Problems in Children & Adolescents

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All children have moments when they do not behave properly. They can go through different phases as they develop and become more independent. Toddlers and adolescents can have their challenging moments and this might mean they push limits from time to time. With the help of parents, carers and teachers, most of them will learn to behave appropriately.

Behavioural problems can happen in children of all ages. Some children have serious behavioural problems. The signs to look out for are:

  • If the child continues to behave badly for several months or longer, is repeatedly being disobedient, cheeky and aggressive;
  • If their behaviour is out of the ordinary, and seriously breaks the rules accepted in their home and school. This is much more than ordinary childish mischief or adolescent rebelliousness.

This sort of behaviour can affect a child's development, and can interfere with their ability to lead a normal life. When behaviour is this much of a problem, it is called a ‘conduct disorder’.

Children with a conduct disorder may get involved in more violent physical fights, and may steal or lie, without any sign of remorse or guilt when they are found out. They refuse to follow rules and may start to break the law. They may start to stay out all night, and play truant from school during the day.

Teenagers with conduct disorder may also take risks with their health and safety by taking illegal drugs or having unprotected sexual intercourse.

Conduct disorders can cause a lot of distress to children, families, schools and local communities. Children who behave like this will often find it difficult to make friends and have difficulties understanding social situations. Even though they might be quite bright, they will not do well at school and are often near the bottom of the class. On the inside, the young person may be feeling that they are worthless and that they just cannot do anything right. It is common for them to show anger and blame others for their difficulties if they do not know how to change for the better.

There is no single cause of conduct disorder. We are beginning to understand that there are many different possible reasons which lead to conduct disorder. A child may be more likely to develop an oppositional defiant disorder/conduct disorder if they:

  • Have certain genes leading to antisocial behaviour
  • Have difficulties learning good social and acceptable behaviours
  • Have a difficult temperament
  • Have learning or reading difficulties - making it difficult to understand and take part in lessons. It is then easy to get bored, feel stupid and misbehave
  • Are depressed
  • Have been bullied or abused
  • Are ‘hyperactive’ - this causes difficulties with self-control, paying attention and following rules
  • Parenting factors, including discipline issues and family disorganization - parents can sometimes make things worse by giving too little attention to good behaviour, always being too quick to criticise or by being too flexible about the rules and not supervising their children
  • Are involved with other difficult young people and drug abuse.

The treatment offered will depend on the child’s development, age and circumstances. Involving and supporting the family is very important. Focussing on strengths and identifying any specific problem areas for the young person, such as learning difficulties, can improve the outcomes for young people with conduct disorders.