Behaviour problems

Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Fran Jeffes
Last updated 7th June 2022 | Next update due 6th June 2025

Children can behave in ways we find to be inappropriate for many different reasons, such as being tired, hungry, overexcited, frustrated, or even bored. Pushing the limits can be normal but, if problem behaviours include a pattern of disruptive behaviour at home, school, or in social situations that lasts for six months or more, it could be a sign of a behaviour disorder.

What are behavioural problems?

Children will go through a number of different phases during development. As they become more independent, both toddlers and adolescents will challenge you and experiment with how far they can push boundaries. This behaviour typically eases as they grow, and is not a cause for concern. Children will typically learn how to behave as they go through school, with the help of parents, carers and teachers.

As children grow, new emotions can be challenging. They may not always know how to process their feelings, leading to more challenging reactions or behaviours. 

New emotions can also catch children unawares, so they don’t always know how to process their feelings and react in a more challenging way. While a child will occasionally lose their temper or have an aggressive, destructive outburst, it’s not normally a cause for concern.

However, if the problem behaviour continues for a long time, or the child or other members of the family are being affected by the behaviour, extra help may be needed.

In this video, counsellor Zara Kadir explains more about behaviour problems, the benefits of therapy and how to find the right counsellor.

Signs to look out for

As a parent, it can be hard to admit that you may need some extra help in managing your child. If your child is showing aggressive behaviour and lashing out, you may be reluctant to talk about it with anyone. You may feel ashamed of your child’s behaviour and not want to discuss it, out of fear of being judged. But keeping it to yourself can be very lonely. For the benefit of your child, yourself and the rest of the family, it’s important you seek support as soon as possible.

Behavioural problems can occur in children of all ages. Some may only experience minor difficulties, while others may have more serious behaviour problems, such as conduct disorder. If you’re worried about a child, consider the following:

  • Is the problem behaviour continuous (lasting several months or longer)?
  • Are they repeatedly lashing out, being disobedient or aggressive?
  • Is their behaviour out of the ordinary?
  • Are they seriously breaking the rules at school or at home?

What can cause changes in behaviour?

There are a number of different things that can affect your child’s behaviour. These can include:

Big life changes. Change can be a difficult time for children at any age. Moving house or schools, changes in who looks after them (eg grandparents after school or a new babysitter), starting a new club, parental separation, or a new younger sibling can all affect how they behave. 

Parental problems. If you or someone close to them is having a difficult time or is feeling upset, they may pick up on this and react with challenging or difficult behaviour.

Past experiences. Past reactions to negative behaviours can influence your child’s future behaviour. For example, if a grandparent gave them a treat to keep them quiet in the shops or car, they may expect a treat every time they go to the shops or take a long trip.

Seeking attention. Children may see bad behaviour like tantrums as a way of getting attention. Providing more attention when they are exhibiting positive behaviours can help to avoid this. 

What is conduct disorder?

Behaviour problems can affect a child’s development and in some cases, affect their ability to live a normal life. This is a sign of a more serious behaviour problem, called conduct disorder.

A child with a conduct disorder may be involved in violent, physical fights with other children. They may lie and steal, without showing any remorse or guilt. Children with a conduct disorder may skip school and avoid coming home, staying out all night. Teenagers with a conduct disorder may start taking more risks with their health, such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Younger children, where behaviour problems are happening within the home, may be diagnosed with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder).

Conduct disorder can be very distressing for the child and their family. The child may find it difficult to make friends and struggle to understand social situations. They may be highly intelligent, yet find school difficult and therefore show anger and blame others in order to cope.

What causes conduct disorder?

There is no single cause of conduct disorder, but there are a number of factors believed to increase the likelihood of a child developing the behaviour problem.

For example:

  • If a child has learning difficulties.
  • If they have been bullied or experienced a traumatic past.
  • If they are experiencing a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression.
  • If they’re involved with other ‘difficult young people’ and substance abuse.

Read more about bullying and how you can help your child.

What support is available?

Dealing with behaviour problems and recognising any related difficulties is important and can give your child a better chance for the future. Treatment will depend on the severity of the problem, age and circumstance of your child, but can include home-based support, such as parenting groups, school support and specialist services, such as counselling.

Many children with behaviour problems will find school difficult, so classroom support may be beneficial. Contact the school to learn what services are available. They may be able to provide your child with extra support in lessons, or individual help to develop social skills.

If you’re worried about your child’s health and behaviour, professional support is available. You can visit your GP for advice, who may be able to refer you to the local child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). Specialists in child behaviour and health can help to assess the behaviour and suggest ways they can improve. Alternatively, you can look for a private counsellor.

Counselling can give you and your child the space you need to talk about what’s going on, without fear of judgement. Treatment methods may include talking therapy and behavioural therapy, which help your child express how they’re feeling and learn how to cope with their emotions in a safe, effective way.

Therapists who can help with behaviour problems

How can you help your child?

Sometimes, problem behaviour can be managed at home, without the need for professional support. As a parent, there are a number of things you can do to address the behaviour.

Don’t give up

Seek support from your friends, family or another parent. Talking about the situation can not only help you feel less alone but also see things in a new light.

Be consistent

Be consistent in how you react to their behaviour. If you react in one way, then the next day in another, you will confuse your child and they won’t understand why it’s wrong.

Stay calm and try not to overreact

It’s easy to let your frustration build up and when overwhelmed, you’re less likely to deal with the situation in the best way. If you’re particularly frustrated, find other ways to cope, like talking to a friend.

Talk to your child

They may have something going on that they’re too scared to talk to you about. Consider what’s going on in their life - bullying, new schools and family changes can make a difference. Ask them why they’re angry or behaving a certain way, and work together to overcome the problem.

Focus on the positives

It’s easy to only focus on bad behaviour, but forgetting to praise your child for their achievements can have a detrimental effect on their confidence. Tell them why you’re proud of them and remind them that you love them, no matter what.

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