Diagnosing Disruptive Behavior

Most children have occasional temper tantrums or emotional outbursts, but when kids repeatedly lash out, are defiant, or can’t control their tempers, it can seriously impair their functioning in school and cause serious family turmoil.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that a child who’s pushing or hitting or throwing tantrums is angry, defiant or hostile. But in many cases disruptive, even explosive behavior stems from anxiety or frustration that may not be apparent to parents or teachers.

Here we take a look at some of the diagnoses that are associated with disruptive behavior in children. It’s crucial to understand what’s really behind the childhood behavior problems because, just as in medicine, the diagnosis will affect the appropriate treatment and avoid misdiagnosed behavior disorders.

The common diagnosis: ODD

Often children who lash out or refuse to follow direction are thought to have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), which is characterized by a pattern of negative, hostile, or defiant behavior. Symptoms of ODD include a child frequently losing his temper, arguing with adults, becoming easily annoyed, or actively disobeying requests or rules. In order to be diagnosed with ODD, the child’s disruptive behavior must be occurring for at least six months.

Other possibilities:

Anxiety Disorders

Children with anxiety disorders have significant difficulty coping with situations that cause them distress. When a child with an untreated anxiety disorder is put into an anxiety-inducing situation, he may become oppositional in an effort to escape that situation or avoid the source of his acute fear.


Many children with ADHD, especially those who experience impulsivity and hyperactivity, may appear to be intentionally oppositional. These children may have difficulty sitting still, they grab things from other kids, blurt out inappropriate remarks, have difficulty waiting their turn, interrupt others, and act without thinking through the consequences.

Learning Disorders

When a child acts out repeatedly in school, it’s possible that the behavior stems from an undiagnosed learning disorder. Say he has extreme difficulty mastering math skills, and laboring unsuccessfully over a set of problems makes him very frustrated and irritable. Or he knows next period is math class.

Sensory Processing Problems

Children who have trouble processing sensory information can have extreme and sometimes disruptive behavior when their senses are feeling overwhelmed. They might do things like scream if their faces get wet, throw violent tantrums whenever you try to get them dressed, crash into walls and even people, and put inedible things, including rocks and paint, into their mouths.

Read More: Disruptive Behavior: Why It’s Often Misdiagnosed

Photo Source: Flickr Images