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Disruptive Behavior: When to Get Help

After the second call in a month from Will’s school principal, Sandi began to worry. The first time he had been suspended for hitting another child on the playground; the second time he had taken money from a classmate’s backpack.

A single parent, Sandi had worked hard to provide a stable home for Will; now she was beginning to doubt her parenting skills and to feel angry at Will for the problems he was causing.

At the principal’s suggestion, Sandi made an appointment with the school counselor who had been concerned that Will’s grades had slipped badly this semester. Their conversation revealed that Will’s problems started when Sandi had begun dating again after her divorce, leaving her son feeling threatened and excluded.

Sandi set aside time for helping Will with his homework each night, and she and her boyfriend planned more family outings with Will. The school contacted Will’s own father who agreed to volunteer once a week in Will’s classroom teaching computer skills.

When parents worry about a child’s disruptive behavior, it helps to try to see it on a continuum that moves from normally troublesome to troubled behavior. Behavior such as throwing a tantrum, telling a lie or hitting another child is troublesome but normal. Most children will tell a lie to get out of trouble occasionally or throw a temper tantrum to express anger or frustration. But a pattern of lying, stealing or tantrums that involve breaking furniture or threatening others suggest a troubled child who should be professionally evaluated.

Normally disruptive behavior can be handled by having clear rules that are fairly and consistently enforced. If rules don’t seem to be working, try sitting down and discussing the problem with the child at a time when everyone is calm. Haim G. Ginott, Ph.D., author of Between Parent and Child [Avon, 1969], suggests explaining in a nonthreatening way why you can’t allow an undesirable behavior and then asking the child for suggestions.

When an episode erupts again, use your child’s suggestion and give him credit if it works. This approach empowers the child and focuses on the undesirable behavior rather than the child himself.

For many children the line between troublesome and troubled behavior is first crossed when they begin school. Highly active and aggressive behavior that was tolerated and managed at home may be considered disruptive and unacceptable in a school setting.

When a child has trouble functioning in a structured classroom setting, completing tasks and getting along with other children at school, parents and teachers need to work together to identify the underlying problem. Failing to do so can cause social and academic problems for the child. These in turn will result in further alienation and disruptive behavior.

Disruptive behavior can result from ADHD, conduct disorders, problems or difficulty adjusting to life’s stresses. Anxious and depressed children also show similar patterns of behavior. It’s important to identify and treat the problem as early as possible, so the child can have a chance to improve his or her behavior and, in turn, regain feelings of self worth.

Attention Deficit Disorder

Children who are impulsive, excessively talkative, have trouble waiting their turn or paying attention to a task may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a disorder affecting some three to five percent of all school-age children. Not all children who are very active and have trouble paying attention in school have ADHD, however. When a child is diagnosed with ADHD after a careful diagnosis, medication can be effective in treating the disorder. Children treated with Ritalin or other similar medications generally show a marked improvement in behavior and are more able to attend to and complete tasks. An article in The Harvard Mental Health Letter [May, 1995] points out that although medications are effective in improving behavior and generally lead to greater feelings of self-esteem for the child, it has not been shown to improve academic performance in the long run. Symptoms return when the drug is withdrawn. Children with ADHD are often helped through structure, a consistent routine and help in breaking up school assignments and other tasks into small, manageable bites alternating with physical activity, and providing untimed testing situations.

Conduct Disorders

A study reported in The Menninger Letter [October 1995] found that although parents might have difficulty recognizing the symptoms of ADHD in their children, they were fairly accurate in their ability to recognize conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

Where occasional lying and aggression may be common in children, conduct disorder is characterized by a more persistent pattern of aggression such as picking fights and destroying property and repeated lying and stealing.

Oppositional defiant disorder that might show up as truancy or lying is a more passive form of defying parents and teachers than conduct disorder. Both are serious problems that warrant help.

Conduct disorder is more common in males than females. Researchers have found genetic components as well as links with childhood neglect and abuse. Lack of discipline and poor supervision of children may also play a role.

Parents and educators should seek help for conduct disorders. About half of those diagnosed with the disorder manage to overcome their problem as they mature.

Emotional and behavioral problems frequently show up in young people who face temporary stress due to school failure, divorce, relocation or just coping with the changes that come with growth and development. These are usually diagnosed as adjustment disorders. Counseling, supportive therapy and family therapy are all commonly used to provide reassurance, persuasion and advice to both children and parents.

Learning problems, especially connected with basic skills such as reading and math, can also contribute negative attitudes toward school and precipitate disruptive behavior. School failure can create a pervasive pattern of frustration, boredom and anger in children.

A child who is constantly disruptive should be carefully evaluated for learning problems. If one is found, an academic plan should be put in place alongside any supportive therapy that is necessary.

Disruptive behavior is a sign a child needs help. Punishment will not solve emotional, psychological or learning problems. Parents and teachers need to work together to seek solutions that address the long-term needs of the child, not just the immediate behavior. In Will’s case, the problem was a mild adjustment disorder that was successfully resolved with teamwork between the school counselor and parents.

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Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014

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