Disruptive Behavior Disorders In Children: How To Recognize And Manage Them

Updated September 26, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Parents may sometimes feel exasperated by their children’s disorderly behavior since testing boundaries is a common part of growing up. In some cases, though, a child may show a more dramatic and sustained pattern of rule-breaking, defiance, or antisocial actions. This could be a warning sign for a disruptive behavior disorder. Learning to recognize the symptoms could make it easier to get the help you need for yourself and your child.

Disruptive behavior disorders (DBDs) are a group of mental health conditions marked by difficulties with impulse control and following societal norms. They’re often observed first in childhood and can take a variety of forms. These disorders can pose serious difficulties for a child’s long-term success. Still, caregivers can often manage disruptive behavior disorders and teach children better ways of interacting with those around them.

Support Your Mental Health So You Can Support Your Child

What Is A Disruptive Behavior Disorder?

Clinicians recognize several distinct types of DBDs, but they all share certain characteristics. Perhaps the most important feature is a sustained pattern of behavior that goes against accepted rules and norms for interacting with others. Usually, these actions don’t just affect the individual, but also the other people in their homes, classrooms, circle of friends, and other social groups. 

In some cases, an individual with this type of disorder may show a pattern of harming others or violating their rights. People with DBDs often receive frequent disciplinary actions and may come into conflict with authority figures of various kinds.

Disruptive patterns of behavior often begin in early childhood or adolescence, even if the condition isn’t diagnosed right away. If they’re not recognized and treated, they can escalate, potentially leading to serious difficulties later in life. Individuals with DBDs that aren’t addressed early may be at increased risk for outcomes such as:

  • Problematic substance use
  • Poor academic performance
  • Difficulties with interpersonal relationships
  • Impulsive, reckless behavior
  • Risky sexual choices
  • Legal problems/incarceration

Types Of Disruptive Behavior Disorders

Understanding the different categories of disruptive behavior disorder can make them easier to recognize. Specific DBDs include:

Conduct Disorder

According to recent estimates, conduct disorder (CD) is the most common type of disruptive behavior disorder, affecting about 3.5% of children. It involves repeated violations of age-appropriate behavior, often including a serious disregard for the rights and wishes of others. Signs of conduct disorder can include:

  • Deception
  • Theft, ranging from shoplifting to mugging or breaking and entering
  • Skipping school or running away from home
  • Property destruction
  • Aggression or cruelty — this can include threats, bullying, harming animals, and physical or sexual violence

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ODD, is the second most diagnosed DBD after conduct disorder. It’s estimated to occur in roughly 2.8% of children. ODD is defined by repeated disobedience, defiance, and antagonism toward authority figures such as parents and teachers. 

Unlike conduct disorder, ODD usually doesn’t involve harmful or destructive behavior. Instead, it’s often marked by features like rudeness, tantrums, disobedience, or stubbornness. 

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Frequent outbursts of anger may be the key feature of intermittent explosive disorder. Though these episodes may include aggression or property destruction, they’re not planned and they’re not part of a larger pattern of antisocial behavior. Instead, they may be provoked by some type of conflict or distress and tend to be brief. 

Still, these reactions can be out of proportion to their triggering incidents. They often cause significant difficulty with interpersonal interactions and may lead to frequent disciplinary encounters.



A child who has difficulty resisting the impulse to start fires may be diagnosed with pyromania. To meet the definition of pyromania, fire-starting must be unrelated to ulterior motives like revenge or personal gain. Instead, an individual with pyromania has a fixation on watching things burn and feels significant psychological release or gratification while engaging in this behavior.


This disorder involves repeated, impulsive thefts. As in pyromania, this behavior is not motivated by financial gain or by any other goal aside from enjoyment or relief of psychological tension. Often, the things stolen have little value or emotional significance to the child.

Ordinary Misbehavior Vs. Disruptive Behavior Disorders

Some amount of acting out and testing rules may be a normal part of childhood development. 

If disruptive behavior is unusually frequent, you may want to consider seeking assistance from a psychologist. If your child is exhibiting disruptive actions far more often than others in their age group, it could be an indicator of a disruptive behavior disorder.

It might be important to pay attention to the severity of negative behavior, too. Researchers studying preschoolers found that low-intensity forms of “acting out” didn’t predict later conduct disorder. Thus, you may not need to worry about your young child having minor temper tantrums or occasionally taking things that don’t belong to them. 

Still, more serious issues such as significant property destruction, major deception, and aggression toward people and animals, for example, could be warning signs for a DBD. And inappropriate sexual behavior of any kind is often a red flag. 

In the end, even a trained psychiatric professional will likely have to make a judgment call when diagnosing disruptive behavior disorders. Keeping track of your child’s disciplinary record and history of difficult behavior may help you recognize when a concerning pattern is emerging.

How To Manage And Treat Disruptive Behavior Disorders In Children

It’s understandable to be concerned and distressed if your child receives a diagnosis of a disruptive behavior disorder. You might be worried about how their behavior might affect their success later in life. And you may also be wondering how to parent a chronically disruptive child.

With proper intervention and treatment, it’s possible to help children with DBDs learn appropriate behavior patterns. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, around 70% of children with oppositional defiant disorder will no longer meet diagnostic criteria by age 18

Get Training

A 2017 review of evidence-based treatments for DBDs found one of the most helpful methods of helping a child overcome a disruptive behavior disorder to be parent behavior therapy. Also known as behavioral parent training, this approach involves working with therapists to learn specific strategies for correcting your child’s behavior. This coaching can help you become more confident and effective at communicating with your child, encouraging good behavior, and enforcing discipline when necessary.

You can engage in parent behavior therapy in a group with other parents or in individualized sessions with your therapist and your child. The best approach may be a combination of both options.

Support Your Mental Health So You Can Support Your Child

Be Warm, But Firm

Certain parenting practices appear to be counterproductive, increasing rather than decreasing the odds of disruptive behavior. An authoritarian approach, in which the child receives frequent punishment but little warmth or affection, may lead to more defiance and aggression. It may be better to emphasize your love for your child, praising them when they demonstrate good behavior. 

When you do have to impose discipline, it may be important to follow through. If you’re inconsistent with rule-setting or rarely provide consequences for negative behavior, your child could come to view all behavioral restrictions as arbitrary.

Watch For Signs Of Accompanying Mental Health Factors

The symptoms of DBDs may be made more severe by other psychological difficulties. For example, it’s quite common for individuals with ODD to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as well

Other accompanying challenges could include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even trauma resulting from sexual abuse. It may be a good idea to have your child assessed for these other types of psychological difficulties so that they can receive comprehensive treatment.

Help Them Learn Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Impulse control and anger management can be major challenges for many children with disruptive behavior disorders. In addition to enforcing behavioral boundaries, you may want to work with your child to help them cope with their tendencies toward aggression or recklessness. 

You might consider teaching them techniques such as deep breathing, counting to ten, and thinking through multiple possible responses before speaking. This may be more effective when paired with positive reinforcement such as praise and rewards in response to good behavior.

Don’t Neglect Your Own Mental Health

Parenting a child with behavioral challenges can be stressful. In addition to parent behavior therapy, you might also want to engage in psychotherapy to support your own mental health so that you can be an effective caregiver. Online therapy can be a good fit for busy parents who find it hard to make time for in-person sessions. Remote therapy removes the need to travel to appointments and may enable more flexible scheduling.

Internet therapy can provide relief for a wide range of mental health difficulties. Researchers examining the clinical research found that online psychotherapy appeared to be just as effective as in-person treatment. They concluded that web-based therapy was a “legitimate therapeutic activity” that could offer substantial benefits for many clients.


Disruptive behavior disorders may feature repeated patterns of challenging behavior, including disobedience, hostility, rule-breaking, deceit, and violence. They can appear early in childhood, and the most common forms involve disregard for authority and antisocial actions. Often, the best treatment for DBDs is therapist-led training for parents in effective behavior correction strategies. To get matched with a licensed online counselor, reach out to BetterHelp today.

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