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BEHAVIORAL DISORDERS

Updated: Sep 28, 2023


Behavioral disorders can be described as a set of behaviors that cause negative emotional symptoms when left untreated. Many of these disorders are detectable during childhood and if caught early can be treated effectively with behavioral interventions. Occasionally, medication is necessary in addition to behavioral strategies.

While there is frequent overlap in behavioral and emotional disorders, there are characteristics that are indicative of behavioral disorders. These disorders predominately relate to social and communication dynamics, and adaptive functioning that shape the symptom profile outlined in the DSM V.


Studies suggest that across cultural boundaries Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects about 5% of children and 2.5 % of adults. It is typically more prevalent in males than females. The data is mixed when determining an etiology for behavioral disorders. However, there is definitive evidence that alcoholism is a common teratogen responsible for cognitive disabilities, ADHD, and other behavioral disorders. Genetic factors can also play a role in promoting mental health development during growth. There is evidence to suggest that children with parents diagnosed with schizophrenia have a substantially higher predisposition to this disorder when compared to children who have no family history of the disorder.


Behavioral disorders are diagnosed by a carefully selected list of psychological tests as well as observations and reports of past behavioral patterns. The examiner must determine the appropriate testing needed by reviewing the subject’s cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral functioning. Testing is frequently used to determine appropriate treatment interventions, clarify the diagnosis, and monitor baseline progression. Testing can be divided into three main categories, intellectual, projective, and clinical assessment.


Intellectual testing typically measures cognitive abilities with a set of subtests that correlate with IQ scores. Examples of these tests include The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (SB5), Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale(WAIS-IV), and the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT). The test result can aid in determining a subject's overall cognitive profile, identify intellectual deficits, or even superior intellectual performance.


Measures of personality include tests that measure emotional, social, and behavioral themes. Frequently the test of choice is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), The Rorschach Inkblot test, and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The construction of the test may be seen as largely unstructured and the results are driven by correlations of categorized characteristics.


Clinical assessment evaluates dysfunctional behavior and the severity of organic anomalies such as brain damage. The Halstead-Reitan (H-R), Beck Depression Inventory, and the Bender-Gestalt are common assessments when determining if an aberrant behavioral pattern exists. The Beck assessments are a great tool for achieving a quick and concise evaluation of mood disorders to formulate treatment plans.


There are many differences between personality and behavioral disorders. Personality disorders are generally pervasive with a consistent pattern of dysfunctional behavior that is routinely intolerant of change. Personality disorders include:

  • Paranoid Personality Disorder: is described as a marked distrust of others and a preoccupation with the suspiciousness of others’ motives. They frequently tend to carry grudges against others.

  • Schizoid Personality Disorder: is characterized by a significant detachment from others in a social setting. The individual prefers solitary activities and may be described as emotionally cold or aloof.

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder: is characterized by engaging in criminal behavior with a blatant disregard for the rights of others. These individuals are also known to lack empathy and have a bolstered ego.

  • Borderline Personality Disorder: is described as individuals who have significant difficulty maintaining healthy interpersonal connections. They frequently describe feeling damaged and exhibit difficulty controlling angry outbursts.

  • Histrionic Personality Disorder: is characterized by yearning to be the center of attention and considering relationships to have deeper quality than what exists.

  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder describes individuals that thrive on a need for admiration and lack empathy towards others. They tend to feel a sense of entitlement and present with arrogance and a haughty demeanor.

  • Avoidant Personality Disorder: is commonly known for feelings of oversensitivity and an intense fear of rejection. These individuals may avoid novel activities for fear of being ridiculed.

  • Dependent Personality Disorder: is characterized by a need to be validated by others. These individuals have a fear of separation and feel helpless with alone. They also lean on others heavily for advice and decision-making.

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder: is characterized by a need for perfectionism in performance. They are generally described as inflexible and thrive on regimes and order.

Behavioral Disorders are outlined as the following:
  • Intellectual Disability: These individuals have demonstrated significant cognitive deficits in intellectual functioning via cognitive testing. The deficits are found to impair functioning across multiple adaptive settings.

  • Communication disorder: is characterized by abnormalities in speech and speech patterns that are infrequent at the age of the child.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: is characterized by deficits in social reciprocity and restrictive patterns in behaviors and interests.

  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: exhibits a marked inability to pay attention and easy distractibility. They are frequently fidgety.

  • Tics Disorder: is characterized in the DSM as “sudden, rapid, nonrhythmic motor movement or vocalization.

Risk factors for behavioral disorders include genetic predisposition and exposure during the prenatal period of development.

Adverse social factors such as poverty, abuse, child onset trauma, and medical illness promote maladaptive qualities that exacerbate the risk of exposure to behavioral disorders.


Behavioral disorders are treated with routine psychotherapy by a licensed mental health clinician. Occasionally, symptoms can be severe to the point where psychotropic medications are dispensed by a medical doctor as a necessary intervention to alleviate symptoms.


Generally, there is a cure for most behavioral disorders. Symptoms can be treated with empirically validated treatment that may not have been achieved without intervention. It is important to have your child assessed if you suspect that they could have a behavioral disorder.

Evidence-based treatment approaches while using protective factors such as consistent and loving parenting skills are the key to overcoming challenges associated with these disorders.

While self-help strategies are certainly encouraged, it is advisable to involve a licensed professional to guide the progress of the patient. For children, reinforcement schedules are very effective in shaping more advantageous behaviors and promoting an overall sense of well-being.


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