All children can have behavior problems; very few children make it through childhood without smacking a sibling or yelling, “I hate you!” at a parent. Toddlers and preschoolers are practically defined by their temper tantrums, after all.
Severe behavior problems, however, are beyond typical childhood issues. It can be hard for parents to decide what constitutes a severe problem, but there are certain identifying characteristics.
Symptoms of Severe Behavior Problems
There are a wide range of behaviors that can be considered problematic in young children. Physical aggression, refusing to follow directions, temper tantrums, excessive argumentativeness and stealing are all behavior problems, says the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Boston Children’s Hospital also lists behavior intended to annoy others, blaming others for mistakes or misbehavior, an inability to handle frustration and misinterpreting others’ behavior as threatening.
These problems become severe when they are repeated regularly despite support and consequences, they occur more frequently than they do in other children of a similar age and they last for at least six months. Children with severe behavior problems also struggle in the classroom or day care setting and lose friends because of their behavior.
Types of Disruptive Behavior Disorder
The common types of disruptive behavior disorder — oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder — are typically not associated with young children. Their descriptors, like vandalizing property and skipping school, aren’t exactly preschool friendly.
But researchers are finding more and more young children with disruptive behavior disorder, reports NBC News of a report published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. While all toddlers can be prone to frustration and anger, toddlers with severe problems are likely to have tantrums more frequently and more severely than other toddlers.
They can have 20-minute temper tantrums 10 times a day, reports Lauren S. Wakschlag, an associate professor at the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the researchers of the report.
Instead of refusing some parental requests, toddlers with a disruptive behavior disorder refuse all of them vehemently. Normally, as children mature from 2 to 5 years old, their outbursts are reduced, says the University of Florida as part of its report entitled “Management of Disruptive Behavior in Young Children.
Causes of Severe Behavior Problems
However, not all children with severe behavior problems have one of these disorders, suggests the Mayo Clinic. An underlying mental illness such as a bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can also cause severe behavior problems.
There are also environmental causes like domestic violence in the home, changes in the parent or caregiver, or inadequate care at home. When looking at the causes of the disruptive behavior disorders listed above, researchers do not have a definitive cause. Genetic factors as well as the parents’ mental health may contribute to the problem.
Treatment for Severe Behavior Problems
When parents have concerns about their children’s behavior, they should talk to their pediatrician as well as the school or day care staff. Professional behavioral therapists or psychologists can help parents, children and teachers learn specific techniques to help manage behavior. With toddlers and preschoolers, there may also be parental education, psychotherapy or medication to help with biological issues.