Disruptive Behavior: Why It’s Often Misdiagnosed
Tantrums and defiance may mask issues that aren't apparent to teachers and parents
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 impair their functioning in school and cause serious family turmoil.
The first challenge in helping a child manage his behavior better is to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. In the same way that a headache or a fever can be caused by many things, frequent outbursts — which clinicians call “emotional dysregulation”— can reflect a number of different underlying issues.
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 in order to treat them effectively.
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 their temper, arguing with adults, becoming easily annoyed, or actively disobeying requests or rules. In order to be diagnosed with ODD, the disruptive behavior must be occurring for at least six months. But there are a number of other issues that could lead to kids being oppositional or out of control in school or at home.
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, they may become oppositional in an effort to escape that situation or avoid the source of their acute fear.
For example, children with acute social anxiety may lash out at another child if they find themselves in a difficult situation. Children with OCD may become extremely upset and scream at their parents when they do not provide the constant repetitive reassurance that they use to manage obsessive fears.
We tend to associate anxiety with kids freezing, avoiding things they’re afraid of, or clinging to parents, notes says Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “But you can also see tantrums and complete meltdowns.”
“Anxiety is one of those diagnoses that is a great masquerader,” explains Dr. Laura Prager, director of the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It can look like a lot of things. Particularly with kids who may not have words to express their feelings, or because no one is listening to them, they might manifest their anxiety with behavioral dysregulation.”
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.
These symptoms are more a result of their impaired executive functioning skills—their ability to think ahead and assess the impact of their behavior—than purposeful oppositional behavior.
In a recent study conducted by Dr. Amy Roy of Fordham University, more than 75 percent of children who presented with severe temper outbursts also fit the criteria for ADHD. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been diagnosed with ADHD — in fact the disorder may be overlooked in kids who have a history of aggression.
“What people don’t understand is that a lack of focus, an inability to complete work and tolerate boredom, among other symptoms, can contribute to the escalation toward the explosive outbursts,” explains Vasco Lopes, PsyD, a clinical psychologist. So you have to get to the underlying cause.”
When a child acts out repeatedly in school, it’s possible that the behavior stems from an undiagnosed learning disorder. Say they have extreme difficulty mastering math skills, and laboring unsuccessfully over a set of problems makes them very frustrated and irritable. Or they know next period is math class.
“Kids with learning problems can be masters at being deceptive — they don’t want to expose their vulnerability. They want to distract you from recognizing their struggle,” explains Nancy Rappaport, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in mental health care in school settings. “If a child has problems with writing or math or reading, rather than ask for help or admit that he’s stuck, he may rip up an assignment, or start something with another child to create a diversion.”
Paying attention to when the problematic behavior happens can lead to exposing a learning issue, she adds. “When parents and teachers are looking for the causes of dysregulation, it helps to note when it happens — to flag weaknesses and get kids support.”
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.
Besides tantrums and mood swings, kids with sensory processing issues are also at risk for running away when an environment becomes too overwhelming for them. The “fight or flight” response can kick in when kids are feeling overloaded with sensory input, and their panicked reactions can put them in real danger.