What Are Behavioral Disorders?

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Although behavioral disorders are often associated with children, they can also affect adults, including when the condition was left untreated from childhood. Understanding how behavioral disorders work, what they are, and when they occur can be the first step toward reaching out for treatment or guidance from a counselor.

Explore behavioral disorders and their symptoms

What is a behavioral disorder?

Although all mental illnesses include behavioral symptoms, behavioral disorders refer to specific mental health conditions. Behavioral disorders often cause marked behavioral changes that negatively impact relationships and the social functioning of those experiencing them. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has expanded this category by adding a few new conditions. 

The following are behavioral disorders currently identified by the American Psychiatric Association in the DSM-5:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Intermittent explosive disorder (IED)
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)

Often, for a diagnosis of one of these mental health conditions to be made, symptoms may have lasted for six months or longer and caused problems in school, at home, in social situations, or at work. 

The above behavioral disorders may have similar characteristics, such as aggression, impulsivity, disruption, and onset at a young age. However, each is unique and has different treatments. 

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Note: Many people diagnosed with ADHD identify under the neurodiverse umbrella. Neurodiversity refers to a difference in the brain and is often used to describe those with ADHD or autistic individuals. For this reason, ADHD is not "curable." However, professional advice, medication, or therapy can often manage distressing symptoms. If you're a parent of a child with ADHD or someone who has been diagnosed, consider learning more about ADHD and neurodivergence when considering the symptoms. 

ADHD is one of the most common behavioral disorders affecting children and adults. It is estimated that around 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD in the United States. Many adults are unaware that they have ADHD and show signs of it for many years before getting diagnosed and receiving treatment. 

ADHD involves three different categories, also known as presentations, including: 

  • Predominantly inattentive type (ADHD-PI) 
  • Hyperactive and impulsive type (ADHD-HI) 
  • Combined type 

Some people might be dominant in one category over another; however, hyperactivity symptoms often appear around the age of three, whereas symptoms related to inattention may be more apparent around five to eight years old. ADHD-PI was previously identified as ADD in the DSM-4. However, that diagnosis has been removed and is no longer a clinical term. 

ADHD is often progressive; symptoms may evolve and vary in intensity. This symptom change can lead to a new diagnosis with a different presentation. In children, six symptoms may be observed for them to be diagnosed with a specific presentation, whereas only five need to be apparent for those aged 17 and older. 

No matter the age, ADHD and a lack of accessibility to a neurodiverse brain can cause challenges in daily life, including at school or work and in ordinary social interactions. Despite the challenges that people with ADHD may face, many symptoms of ADHD can be manageable with treatment, accommodations, and understanding from others. 

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)

ODD is a mental health condition often diagnosed during childhood and adolescence that can coexist with other conditions, like ADHD and anxiety.

This condition is often characterized by symptoms of defiance toward authority figures, such as parents and teachers. The following are some of the symptoms of ODD: 

  • Acting from rage or anger, including yelling, throwing objects, etc. 
  • Defiance, arguments, refusal to follow the rules, and questioning of rules 
  • Easy irritation in situations of authority 
  • Vindictive behaviors, like getting revenge or trying to incite anger in others 

These symptoms in ODD may resemble other mental health conditions and might coincide with self-control challenges. Like with many behavioral conditions, ODD symptoms must last at least six months for a diagnosis to occur. 

It is unknown what causes ODD, but there are two theories, including the developmental theory and the learning theory. The developmental theory believes that ODD develops during the toddler stage and stems from difficulty learning how to be independent. The learning theory suggests that these attitudes are learned behaviors through negative reinforcement. If a caregiver or person of authority gives a child positive reinforcement for unwanted behaviors, they may be conditioned to continue acting that way. 

Note that many modern psychologists disagree with the diagnosis of ODD and believe that these behaviors may instead be symptoms of an untreated or misunderstood neurodiversity or a result of trauma. 

Conduct disorder

Conduct disorder is a behavioral disorder with symptoms similar to ODD that is often more severe. This condition may involve more aggressive or violent behavior in children or teens, sometimes leading to criminal activity.

A few signs of conduct disorder may include the following: 

  • Engaging in bullying and fights
  • Carrying and using weapons
  • Lying and stealing
  • Running away from home
  • Skipping school 

These aspects of conduct disorder can have grave consequences in school, social settings, and family life. Certain activities can get an individual expelled from school or sent to the juvenile criminal justice system if a crime has been committed.

Conduct disorder can only be diagnosed in children and teens aged 18 or younger. Adults with the same symptoms are often diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, which belongs to a separate class of mental health conditions known as personality disorders. 

While conduct disorder can be dangerous for individuals and others in their lives, it may be treatable. Family therapy, which promotes positive parenting skills and relationship building, may help children and adolescents learn behavioral skills. Therapy or medication is often essential to preventing symptoms from continuing into adulthood and potentially leading to a personality disorder.

Intermittent explosive disorder (IED)

Like ODD and conduct disorder, IED is another behavioral disorder with aggressive symptoms that often manifests during childhood. IED may cause impulsivity, such as angry outbursts that do not require provocation that can seem out of proportion to the situation at hand. Failure to control anger can lead to recurring rage attacks and arguments. The rage may hurt people, animals, and property through verbal or physical aggression.

For a person to be diagnosed with IED, the symptoms must cause significant distress to the individual and lead to impairment at school or work. It can affect children and adults, but it is not diagnosed in those under six years old. In addition, the symptoms must not be explained better by a separate mental health condition. 

A risk factor for IED is exposure to physical and emotional trauma during youth, which can also lead to other conditions, like PTSD, anxiety, and depression. In addition to changing aggressive thoughts and teaching coping skills, therapy, and counseling may be beneficial in addressing past trauma. In some cases, medication might be recommended.

Consult a doctor or psychiatrist before changing, starting, or stopping medication for any mental health condition. 

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)

DMDD is a newer condition added to the DSM-5. Although it is a more modern diagnosis, it has a few similar criteria to the other behavioral disorders. For instance, DMDD may be characterized by irritability, anger, and frequent outbursts, also common to IED. Despite the potential for someone to meet most of the criteria for both conditions, one of the critical differences between DMDD and IED is how persistent the anger is.

In IED, anger attacks may occur in short bursts, and those impacted may return to their baseline afterward. However, in DMDD, these feelings can linger consistently throughout the day. Children with this condition may be irritable for most of the day and have verbal or physical outbursts three or more times per week. 

Like IED, DMDD can also be disruptive and cause problems at school and home, but it can be managed with similar treatments. To get diagnosed with DMDD, a person must be over six years old but under 18 and have displayed symptoms for over 12 months. Psychotherapy and parent training are often the first courses of treatment for DMDD, but in many cases, medication might be necessary for managing the symptoms.

Explore behavioral disorders and their symptoms

Counseling options 

Often, the most effective way to address behavioral concerns is talk therapy, and millions of children and adults have seen progress through techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). However, many people struggle to add in-person counseling to their schedule or budget. In these cases, online therapy may be effective. 

Online therapy has been proven as effective as in-person therapy, and it is often an affordable and convenient option. Making an appointment may be simple and take less time than in person, and you can find sessions suited to a work or school schedule. If you're interested in signing up, you might consider a platform like BetterHelp for adults or TeenCounseling for those aged 13 to 19. 

Takeaway

If you have questions or concerns about ADHD, ODD, or your behavior, you're not alone. Therapy is an effective form of treatment for many children, adolescents, and adults, and you can take part in it online or in person. To reach a behavioral therapist, consider performing an online search in your area to get started.

Target disruptive behavior in therapy

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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