Disruptive Behavior Disorders: How to Cope with Hostile Kids — and When to Seek Help 

Disruptive Behavior Disorders: How to Cope with Hostile Kids — and When to Seek Help 

Do you feel like certain situations turn your child into a ticking time bomb? Do you dread frequent morning arguments about going to school? Or maybe you’ve noticed your child pushing or acting aggressively toward teammates or during an extracurricular activity? These types of uncooperative or hostile actions are a sampling of what could be a disruptive behavior disorder. 

“This type of behavior might be physical aggression, verbal aggression toward others; it may also be property destruction, so throwing or breaking things. A lot of that is dependent on the child’s developmental level,” says Dr. Catrina Litzenburg, pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s.   

Disruptive behavior disorders (DBD) can seriously impact a child’s daily life. Children with disruptive behavior disorders show ongoing patterns of uncooperative and defiant behavior, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. 

Why is My Child Doing This? 

Disruptive behaviors often are linked to problems with self-control of emotions and behaviors. 

“We know that children’s brains are still developing and they don’t yet have the skills that they need to manage their own emotions and behaviors, so they tend to respond more impulsively,” Litzenburg says. 

There’s a variety of reasons that could trigger disruptive behaviors. Early exposure to trauma, life circumstances or changes in lifestyle can be contributing factors. In other cases, an underlying medical issue could be to blame. 

“Some kids have thyroid issues or sensory issues,” says Dr. Jay Berk, a licensed psychologist who works with oppositional defiant children. “Some kids have learning disabilities, and they’re flipping out during homework. Once you get that learning disability figured out, the behavior gets better.” 

Children who suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at a higher risk for developing disruptive behavior disorders, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital. 

Getting a Diagnosis 

Even if disruptive behavior is a small concern, it’s still worth mentioning to a child’s doctor. 

“They are really good at helping to decide if it’s a typical development thing or if it needs more intervention,” Litzenburg says. “From there, a specialist may assess how the behavior is impacting school, social relationships and home life.” 

“Often, we’re looking at things like frequency — how often is it happening — and intensity: what’s the level of those episodes and settings,” Litzenburg says. “Is it only at home, is it home and church, is it school? Thinking about how widespread it is can also be an indicator of level of concern.”

Treatment Options

Experts say early intervention is extremely important to managing disruptive behaviors.  

“We’re partially effective in managing these in young children, like  ages 2-7, and that’s partly because that’s the age when they really care about the parents,”  Litzenburg says. 

“After that, it becomes more about peers, and privileges and rewards.”

A therapist can help identify the reason behind the behavior and come up with effective behavioral techniques. 

“One thing I’m able to do is identify why the child is acting out and the reason behind that,” Berk says. “For example, they’re acting out because they want something and they don’t have the patience to wait for it, or they’re acting out because they’re being left out but they don’t have the social skills to fit in.”  

Once identified, they can begin work on building the skills the child may be lacking. 

Parent-child interaction therapy also will help parents learn effective techniques to manage behaviors at home. 

Managing Behavior at Home 

One of the first things caregivers can do is keep a journal and record episodes of disruptive or aggressive behavior. This will help their doctor pinpoint triggers. 

“Also make notes about good days and good behaviors,” Berk says.

Another thing parents can do is use their own behavior as a model for their children. 

“Parents can say, ‘I’m feeling frustrated right now, so I’m going to take a break,’” Berk says. “What happens is the kid starts to hear that and assimilate it.” 

It’s also important to pay attention to how you or other caregivers respond to the disruptive behavior and use it to your advantage. 

“Parents recognize that their attention is gold and that’s what the child wants most,” Litzenburg says. “Give that attention in a strategic way. The behaviors that we pay more attention to are the ones that are going to happen more often.”  

For instance, if your child has difficulty sharing toys, be complimentary when you see them sharing. 

“Showing approval is likely to be effective or helpful, and the kid is more likely to do that in the future,” Litzenburg says. 

Lastly, give kids some slack.

“No kid wants to get up and make your life miserable,” Berk says. “Most kids don’t like the feeling of being out of control and a lot of kids will apologize later for acting out.”

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