Bad Behavior or Something Else? How to Tell If Your Child Needs a Diagnosis


August 4, 2020

Hurricane-level tantrums at the grocery store. Total meltdowns over the wrong cereal bowl color. Wrestling with siblings. Intentional swipes at the family pet.

Normal kid stuff, right?

Most likely. But what happens when your kiddo doesn’t outgrow his terrible twos or the “threenager” phase of early childhood? 

Is your child’s willful disobedience really willful, or is there something else going on behind the scenes?

Every family deals with a tantrum now and then. And while an occasional fit is no big deal, frequent outbursts or repeated defiance can leave you feeling drained as a parent. 

You might even start to wonder if your kid’s aggression is typical or something to worry about.

When life gets to that point, get a professional involved. Looking into a behavioral diagnosis for your child can seem scary, but it may actually be the first step toward hope for better days ahead. Not sure when it’s time to see a pro? 

Here are some signs that your child may need a diagnosis.

Disclaimer: always start with your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s behavior. The following isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any medical conditions. Check in with your provider! This article is for information only.

What to Watch For

It can be hard to tell the difference between typical kid behavior and symptoms of something else. Even at your wit’s end, you might say to yourself, “Maybe every parent deals with this.”

Truth be told, there’s no set signal indicating that it’s time for help.

Instead, you may slowly realize that there’s something different about the way that your kiddo interacts with the world. You might even have a gut feeling about it early on.

But if you’re looking for some validation, there are some signs that something could be amiss:

Your child seems behind his peers.

Kids develop on their own schedules, so regularly comparing your child to others isn’t a great idea. There’s a reason that those milestones come in ranges. Still, there may come a point when you notice that your child seems miles behind all of the other kids on the playground.

Case in point? Tantrums. 

Daily tantrums are common in toddlers, but that behavior usually lessens over time. If your school-aged child is still exploding over minor infractions that your friends’ kids seem to take in stride, you may want to consider underlying concerns. 

This isn’t to say that a kid who’s overly emotional about a problem has an underlying health problem. Stress at home — like a move, a new sibling or other big change — could cause some emotional turmoil. But frequent tantrums in older kids isn’t typical.

The behavior hasn’t gotten better over time.

Children usually outgrow some habits on their own. Others lessen with loving correction and discipline.

If all of your time-tested tricks have failed to make a difference in your child’s behavior, you might be tempted to blame yourself for failing to discipline properly. 

Instead of beating yourself up, schedule an appointment to have your child evaluated for a behavioral disorder. Even if she doesn’t have one, you might benefit from hearing new ideas for effective discipline. Troubleshooting behavior problems with a specialist could help your child and you.

Family life and friendships are suffering.

It’s hard to see your child struggle to build positive relationships with teachers or peers. Worse still is the realization that his behavior is threatening the peace in your family. 

These problems may erode his self-esteem as well.

Your child’s behavioral issues may seem minor compared to others’. Even small actions can have a big influence over time, though. If your child’s behaviors are driving others away, professional intervention can help turn things around.

Your child’s actions or attitudes seem extreme.

Everyone gets upset when things go wrong, but your child seems to take it to the next level. Being told to do something immediately causes her to rebel. Small setbacks drive her to the depths of despair. 

These intense reactions can be a sign that there’s more at play than just having a bad day.

Note: threats of violence or suicide at any age should always be addressed immediately. Never take a wait-and-see approach when the potential for physical harm is involved.

Childhood Behavior Problems

Sometimes, your kid’s inability to sit still, pay attention or keep his hands to himself might be caused by his own brain.

In other words, he was born that way.

Behavioral problems stem from many sources. Some children receive a diagnosis that directly relates to behavioral or developmental health.

Childhood behavioral diagnoses vary but might include:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD struggle with impulsivity and have a hard time focusing on any one thing for very long.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): This category of developmental disorders includes a range of conditions that may affect social relationships, behavior and communication.
  • Conduct disorder (CD): Kids with conduct disorders display intense aggression and engage in frequent rule-breaking.
  • Learning disabilities: Children who struggle to succeed in school may cover for their frustration with negative behaviors.
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD): Common behaviors in children with ODD include arguing and refusal to comply with the rules set by parents or teachers.

With other kids, the underlying issue may surprise you. Mental health plays a big role in how kids act. Physical problems can be influential as well.

Behavioral health may be affected by:

  • Anxiety: Kids sometimes react negatively to situations because they are fearful or anxious about what might happen.
  • Depression: You may have trouble motivating a child with depression to engage in activities, or the depression can cause symptoms like anger and irritability.
  • Food intolerances: Your child’s body may not be able to handle some foods. This could cause inflammation and discomfort, which in turn make it hard for him to concentrate or exhibit self-control.
  • Hearing loss: Undiagnosed hearing problems can lead to communication deficits. As a result, kids may resort to frequent fits.

Sudden changes in behavior can be signs of serious problems, too, such as abuse or drug use.

Where to Go for Help

You’ve come to the realization that there may be more to your child’s behavior than just a bad attitude.

Now it’s time to seek a professional’s help.

It’s important to know that being born with a behavioral problem doesn’t mean there’s no hope for intervention.

In fact, getting help could make everyone’s life easier.

Start with a visit to your child’s pediatrician.

A physical exam may reveal an underlying concern that’s contributing to the negative patterns of behavior. With input from parents and teachers, pediatricians can also diagnose disorders like ADHD.

Some problems may be beyond your pediatrician’s scope, but your child’s doctor can provide referrals to other experts. 

For conditions like ASD, your child might need to be evaluated by a developmental pediatrician or a pediatric neurologist. Psychologists and psychiatrists can help with a variety of behavioral and mental health disorders, including ODD and anxiety.

Doctors and child psychologists, not to mention professionals who study child development and mental health, can help you plot a course once you get a diagnosis.

It’s never too early to seek treatment if you suspect that something’s not quite right. Although it’s rare to receive a formal diagnosis of behavioral disorders before age 5, early intervention can still be beneficial. 

At any age, it’s better to ask for help than to suffer in silence. Some therapies, like occupational and speech, might be beneficial even if your child doesn’t have an official diagnosis.

Bottom line? There are lots of ways to help your child learn to cope with and adjust to life as she grows up. Don’t assume it’s bad behavior. Your child might need a diagnosis.