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Behaviour problems in children (conduct disorder)


Bad behaviour in children is normal from time to time, but if it is persistent, it is important to tackle it. Unlike adults, children are not good at expressing their feelings and tend to act them out. A child who is upset or anxious may behave badly as a way of dealing with these feelings. As parents, it is useful to see bad behaviour as a sign that something is wrong for the child. Professional people working with children, refer to persistent bad behaviour as a "conduct disorder". Children who have conduct disorder have normal intelligence but often under-perform because of their behaviour.

Why do children behave badly and develop conduct disorder?

Children need to feel safe and secure. If they don't, they will express this insecurity through their behaviour. Sometimes it is easy to identify the cause of problem behaviour. For instance a child may act up after a divorce, because of bullying at school, because of violence in the home, because they have fallen out with their friends, because they cannot get their own way over something and for a variety of other reasons. Children who come from homes where there is frequent arguing, violence, where they are not properly supervised or looked after are more likely to develop conduct disorders. Children who have been physically or sexually abused can develop conduct disorders too.

Sometimes, parents cannot properly look after children because they may be disabled, become physically ill or have a serious mental illness such as depression. It is important in these cases that parents get support and help for themselves so they are better able to manage the children. The health and social services can provide such help. Often, other family members will help if they are asked, and they have a good relationship with the child.

If you can identify what is troubling your child by talking to them, the solution may come fairly easily. Unfortunately children are not always sure what is troubling them, or don't want to say. In these instances, you may have to take an educated guess and ask them if a certain incident or situation is troubling them. If that does not work and the problems continue, seek help and advice from your doctor who can refer you to specialist services.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning difficulties, who are bullied or unhappy or depressed, can develop conduct disorders too. Children with these types of specific problems will need treatment and support. Sometimes children who are doing badly at school start to misbehave. For this reason it is useful to discuss any difficulties you are having with school. If you have a child with conduct disorder, it may be the school who contact you.

What to do if your child has conduct disorder

It is important to think about the way you generally handle your children. Different families have different ways of dealing with poor behaviour in children. Research has shown that there are some important things you can do as parents to help children develop better self control and to behave in a more socially acceptable way:

  • Adults dealing with a particular child or children should work together, in a consistent way. This means that you should talk as parents about how you will deal with your children when they misbehave. Pay attention to how you respond when you child is behaving well, by giving praise and encouragement.  

  • The family rules should be clear. If they are broken, a consequence should follow. The consequence may simply be a reminder of what is expected, but sometimes it will require a punishment. People tend to disagree about how to punish children. Many people do not like the term at all - but it is important that as parents, you deal with discipline in a consistent way. Where parents have differences, they should discuss them with each other, away from t