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Common behavioural problems in children

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

Behavioural problems in children can usefully be classified into psychosocial disorders, habit disorders, anxiety disorders, disruptive behaviour and sleeping problems.

Behavioural problems in children are relatively common. Such problems are often a reflection of the child's social stressors, environment and developmental state. Although a majority of behavioural problems are temporary, some may persist or are symptomatic of neurodevelopmental disorders or an underlying medical condition. Initial management of behavioural problems often involves helping parents to learn effective behaviour strategies to promote desirable behaviours in their children1 .

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Psychosocial disorders

These may manifest as disturbance in:

  • Emotions - eg, anxiety or depression.

  • Behaviour - eg, aggression.

  • Physical function - eg, psychogenic disorders.

  • Mental performance - eg, problems at school.

This range of disorders may be caused by a number of factors such as parenting style which is inconsistent or contradictory, family or marital problems, child abuse or neglect, overindulgence, injury or chronic illness, separation or bereavement2 3 .

The child's behavioural problems are often multi-factorial and the way in which they are expressed may be influenced by a range of factors including developmental stage, temperament, coping and adaptive abilities of family and the nature and duration of stress. In general, chronic stressors are more difficult to deal with than isolated stressful events.

Children do not always display their reactions to events immediately, although they may emerge later. Anticipatory guidance can be helpful to parents and children in that parents can attempt to prepare children in advance of any potentially traumatic events - eg, elective surgery or separation. Children should be allowed to express their true fears and anxieties about impending events.

In stressful situations, young children will tend to react with impaired physiological functions such as feeding and sleeping disturbances4 . Older children may exhibit relationship disturbances with friends and family, poor school performance, behavioural regression to an earlier developmental stage and development of specific psychological disorders such as phobia or psychosomatic illness5 6 .

It can be difficult to assess whether the behaviour of such children is normal or sufficiently problematical to require intervention. Judgement will need to take into account the frequency, range and intensity of symptoms and the extent to which they cause impairment.

Habit disorders7

These include a range of phenomena that may be described as tension-reducing.

Thumb sucking

Repetitive vocalisations


Nail biting

Hair pulling

Breath holding

Air swallowing

Head banging

Manipulating parts of the body

Body rocking

Hitting or biting themselves

All children will at some developmental stage display repetitive behaviours but whether they may be considered as disorders depends on their frequency and persistence and the effect they have on physical, emotional and social functioning. These habit behaviours may arise originally from intentional movements which become repeated and then incorporated into the child's customary behaviour. Some habits arise in imitation of adult behaviour. Other habits such as hair pulling or head banging develop as a means of providing a form of sensory input and comfort when the child is alone.

  • Thumb sucking - this is quite normal in early infancy. If it continues, it may interfere with the alignment of developing teeth. It is a comfort behaviour and parents should try to ignore it while providing encouragement and reassurance about other aspects of the child's activities.

  • Tics - these are repetitive movements of muscle groups that reduce tension arising from physical and emotional states, involving the head, the neck and hands most frequently. It is difficult for the child with a tic to inhibit it for more than a short period. Parental pressure may exacerbate it, while ignoring the tic can reduce it. Tics can be differentiated from dystonias and dyskinetic movements by their absence during sleep.

  • Stuttering - this is not a tension-reducing habit. It arises in 5% of children as they learn to speak. About 20% of these retain the stuttering into adulthood. It is more prevalent in boys than in girls. Initially, it is better to ignore the problem since most cases will resolve spontaneously. If the dysfluent speech persists and is causing concern refer to a speech therapist.

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Anxiety disorders

Anxiety and fearfulness are part of normal development; however, when they persist and become generalised they can develop into socially disabling conditions and require intervention.

Approximately 6-7% of children may develop anxiety disorders and, of these, 1/3 may be over-anxious while 1/3 may have some phobia8 .

Generalised anxiety disorder, childhood-onset social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobia are demonstrated by a diffuse or specific anxiety predictably caused by certain situations9 .

School phobia occurs in 1-5% of children and there is a strong association with anxiety and depression10 . Management is by treating the underlying psychiatric condition, family therapy, parental training and liaison with the school in order to investigate possible reasons for refusal and negotiate re-entry. Behavioural and cognitive treatments show promise, although most evidence-based trials involve children with mental health problems rather than the general population of school refusers per se. More research needs to be done in this area11 .

Disruptive behaviour

Anger, irritability, and aggression are among the most common reasons for child mental health referrals. Two forms of behavioural interventions for these behavioural problems, parent management training and cognitive behavioural therapy, have been shown to be effective12 13 . Media-based cognitive behavioural therapies may, in some cases, be enough to make clinically significant changes in a child's behaviour14 .

Many behavioural problems in children are probably undesirable but a normal occurrence at an early stage of development, and can be considered pathological when they present at a later age. In the young child, many behaviours such as breath holding or temper tantrums are probably the result of anger and frustration at their inability to control their own environment. For some of these situations it is wise for parents to avoid a punitive response and, if possible, to remove themselves from the room. It is quite likely that the child will be frightened by the intensity of their own behaviour and will need comfort and reassurance. While some isolated incidents of stealing or lying are normal occurrences of early development, they may warrant intervention if they persist. Truancy, arson, antisocial behaviour and aggression should not be considered as normal developmental features.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is characterised by poor ability to attend to tasks (eg, makes careless mistakes, avoids sustained mental effort), motor overactivity (eg, fidgets, has difficulty playing quietly) and impulsiveness (eg, blurts out answers, interrupts others). For the diagnosis to be made, the condition must be evident before the age of 7, present for >6 months, seen both at home and school and impeding the child's functioning15 . The condition is diagnosed in 3-7% of children of school age16 . Methylphenidate (initiated by specialists only) is a stimulant medication that provides reduction of symptoms, at least in the short term17 . Behavioural modification and neuro-feedback are the non-pharmacological treatments with the largest evidence base18 19 20 . Various dietary interventions have been mooted, of which the addition of essential fatty acids has the widest support21 .

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Sleeping problems

Sleep disorders can be defined as more or less sleep than is appropriate for the age of the child. By the age of 1-3 months, the longest daily sleep should be between midnight and morning. Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone but, at the age of 1 year, 30% of children may still be waking in the night. Stable sleep patterns may not be present until the age of 5 but parental or environmental factors can encourage the development of circadian rhythm. See the separate Sleep Problems in Children article.

Further reading and references

  1. Lulla D, Mascarenhas SS, How CH, et al; An approach to problem behaviours in children. Singapore Med J. 2019 Apr;60(4):168-172. doi: 10.11622/smedj.2019034.
  2. Stadelmann S, Perren S, Groeben M, et al; Parental separation and children's behavioral/emotional problems: the impact of parental representations and family conflict. Fam Process. 2010 Mar;49(1):92-108.
  3. Giannakopoulos G, Mihas C, Dimitrakaki C, et al; Parental separation and children's behavioral/emotional problems: the impact of parental representations and family conflict. Acta Paediatr. 2009 Aug;98(8):1319-23. Epub 2009 Apr 27.
  4. Sirvinskiene G, Zemaitiene N, Zaborskis A, et al; Infant difficult behaviors in the context of perinatal biomedical conditions and early child environment. BMC Pediatr. 2012 Apr 11;12:44.
  5. Dufton LM, Dunn MJ, Compas BE; Anxiety and somatic complaints in children with recurrent abdominal pain and anxiety disorders. J Pediatr Psychol. 2009 Mar;34(2):176-86. Epub 2008 Jun 24.
  6. Dogan-Ates A; Developmental differences in children's and adolescents' post-disaster reactions. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010 Jul;31(7):470-6.
  7. Muthugovindan D, Singer H; Motor stereotypy disorders. Curr Opin Neurol. 2009 Apr;22(2):131-6. doi: 10.1097/WCO.0b013e328326f6c8.
  8. Generalised Anxiety Disorder; Anxiety Care UK
  9. Davidson JR, Feltner DE, Dugar A; Management of generalized anxiety disorder in primary care: identifying the challenges and unmet needs. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2010;12(2). pii: PCC.09r00772. doi: 10.4088/PCC.09r00772blu.
  10. Steinhausen HC, Muller N, Metzke CW; Frequency, stability and differentiation of self-reported school fear and truancy in a community sample. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health. 2008 Jul 14;2(1):17.
  11. Pina AA, Zerr AA, Gonzales NA, et al; Psychosocial Interventions for School Refusal Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Child Dev Perspect. 2009 Apr 1;3(1):11-20.
  12. Sukhodolsky DG, Smith SD, McCauley SA, et al; Behavioral Interventions for Anger, Irritability, and Aggression in Children and Adolescents. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2016 Feb;26(1):58-64. doi: 10.1089/cap.2015.0120. Epub 2016 Jan 8.
  13. Furlong M, McGilloway S, Bywater T, et al; Behavioural and cognitive-behavioural group-based parenting programmes for early-onset conduct problems in children aged 3 to 12 years. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Feb 15;(2):CD008225. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008225.pub2.
  14. Montgomery P, Bjornstad G, Dennis J; Media-based behavioural treatments for behavioural problems in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Jan 25;(1):CD002206. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002206.pub3.
  15. Prudent N, Johnson P, Carroll J, et al; Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: presentation and management in the Haitian American child. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2005;7(4):190-7.
  16. King S, Griffin S, Hodges Z, et al; A systematic review and economic model of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of methylphenidate, dexamfetamine and atomoxetine for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents. Health Technol Assess. 2006 Jul;10(23):iii-iv, xiii-146.
  17. Jahromi LB, Kasari CL, McCracken JT, et al; Positive effects of methylphenidate on social communication and self-regulation in children with pervasive developmental disorders and hyperactivity. J Autism Dev Disord. 2009 Mar;39(3):395-404. Epub 2008 Aug 28.
  18. Hodgson K, Hutchinson AD, Denson L; Nonpharmacological Treatments for ADHD: A Meta-Analytic Review. J Atten Disord. 2012 May 29.
  19. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: diagnosis and management; NICE guideline (March 2018, updated September 2019)
  20. Bjornstad G, Montgomery P; Family therapy for attention-deficit disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005 Apr 18;(2):CD005042.
  21. Hurt EA, Arnold LE, Lofthouse N; Dietary and nutritional treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: current research support and recommendations for practitioners. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2011 Oct;13(5):323-32.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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