When does a child’s behavioral or emotional problems rise to the level of a mental health disorder? Does my own child suffer from a psychological problems? How do I get them the help they need? This page is meant to serve as a reference for parents, teachers, social workers, and mental health professionals. It provides an overview of all the different types of psychological and behavioral disorders, so that you can better understand diagnoses and how they might relate to a child’s behavior. Below you’ll find information and resources on the most commonly diagnosed psychological disorders in children.
– Child Behavioral Disorders –
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is one of the most common diagnoses given to children. It’s also one of the most controversial, and by far the most overdiagosed. Children with ADD have trouble paying attention and show difficulty following directions. Kids with ADHD have all the same symptoms, combined with hyperactive behavior that is often disruptive, making these children more difficult to handle.
Anorexia is when youth restrict their calorie intake to an unhealthy degree, often to the point of all-out starvation. It’s usually driven by body image concerns, but can quickly morph into its own obsession, becoming a way for teens to drive away uncomfortable feelings through hunger, or experience a sense of mastery and control in an otherwise chaotic world. Although anorexia is most commonly seen among tees, in recent years its emergence has crept down into elementary school, and is sometimes seen in children as young as 7 or 8.
- Learn more about anorexia in children and teens.
A disorder in which youth consume massive amounts of food in one setting, usually as a means of coping with stress. It often coincides with anorexia or bulimia, but can also emerge by itself as its own disorder.
- Learn more about binge eating in children and teens.
Bulimia is when a child or teen intentionally purges food from their system in an attempt to avoid the calories that come from eating. Usually this is done through vomiting, though sometimes teens will use laxatives to try and achieve the same effect. Bulimia commonly occurs alongside binge eating, in a pattern wherein a person binges and then purges after feeling guilty. but it can also be a weight loss strategy adopted by children who eat normally.
- Learn more about bulimia in children and teens.
Typically diagnosed among teens, youth with this behavioral disorder are rebellious, defiant, and generally prone toward antisocial behavior. They are often delinquent or prone to law-breaking. It is considered a more mature version of oppositional defiant disorder, and is often a prelude to antisocial personality disorder in adulthood.
- Learn more about conduct disorder in children and teens.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a relatively common childhood disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts and/or obsessive behaviors. Children with this disorder are compelled to engage in meaningless and/or repetitive tasks, thoughts, or rituals, usually as a means of alleviating anxiety. For example, a child may have to check the lock on the door 4 times before leaving the house, or demand that certain things take place in a carefully prescribed manner. When prevented from performing or completing these rituals, they become distraught and anxious.
- Learn more about obsessive compulsive disorder in children and teens.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Very similar to conduct disorder, only typically diagnosed in younger children. kids with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) often grow into conduct disorder as they age. Kids with ODD have significant behavioral problems characterized by things like disruptive behavior, anger, defiance, trouble taking directives from adults, and problems with peers.
- Learn more about oppositional defiant disorder in children and teens.
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is typically seen among foster kids, adopted children, and others with a history of attachment trauma. Kids with this disorder have wounds and insecurities in areas of attachment, which disrupts their ability to bond with caregivers and leads to a variety of extreme behavior. A child with this disorder may be loving an affectionate one moment, only to explode into a hysterical rage the next, all because something you did happened to tap into these hidden insecurities. Because any sort of reprimand can be misinterpreted as rejection, they can be very difficult to parent or control.
- Learn more about reactive mood disorder in children and teens.
– Mood Disorders in Children & Teens –
A unique type of depressive disorder wherein a youth alternates between manic highs and depressive lows. During euphoric states they can become excited and highly motivated, as if they just took a speedball, yet this mood is often accompanied by recklessness, paranoia, or delusions of grandeur. These states are then often followed by depressive lows, where they experience all the symptoms typical of depression. Bipolar is sometimes diagnosed in teens; it is considered rare to non-existent in younger children.
- Learn more about bipolar disorder in kids
Depression is a common disorder that strikes children and teens from all walks of life. As may as 1 in 3 teens will experience a bout of depression sometime during adolescence. Depressed youth sink into a state of despair, becoming sad, withdrawn, and often lethargic, losing all interest in everyday life.
- Learn more about depression in children and teens.
Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder
This is a newly created mood/behavioral disorder that was added to the fifth edition of the DSM. It consists of persistent irritability and frequent episodes of extreme misbehavior in a child up to 18 years of age. Youth with this mental health disorder exhibit a pattern of abnormal, episodic, and often violent and/or uncontrollable social behavior that arises without any provocation.
– Personality Disorders in Children & Teens –
Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD)
Technically an adult disorder, APD is sometimes diagnosed in adolescents (though the proper diagnosis for teens should be conduct disorder). People with antisocial personality disorder display a generally hostile attitude toward others, and often engage in criminal behavior. They possess a general disregard for the welfare of others.
- Learn more about antisocial personality disorder in children and teens. (coming soon)
Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) typically emerges during adolescence. Teens with BPD have a fragile sense of self-identity. They tend to vacillate between seeking out social connection, often to the point of worshipping someone, only to swing the other way and then withdraw or demonize people when others do something that triggers their insecurity. They may also rapidly jump from one interest to another as they try on different identities or latch themselves to different groups. They are hypersensitive, easily injured, and sensitive to the slightest hint of disapproval or rejection.
- Learn more about borderline personality disorder in children and teens.
Callous & Unemotional Traits
This is basically the kiddie version of psychopathy, a different way of describing children who are exhibiting psychopathic traits, since it isn’t considered polite to label a child a psychopath. Kids with callous and unemotional traits are seriously disturbed, and often violent. They exhibit seemingly low levels of empathy, a general lack of regard for others, and manipulative, self-serving behavior. In my own experience, many of the kids diagnosed with callous and unemotional traits are actually kids with attachment trauma who are hardened by this unresolved pain, and would better fit the criteria of an attachment disorder.
- Learn more about callous unemotional disorder in children and teens.
Histrionic Personality Disorder
Those with histrionic personality disorder exhibit an unhealthy need for attention. They are often thought of as “drama queens”; highly emotional and looking for ways to make themselves the center of attention. They may make up stories, engage in overly seductive and flirtatious behavior, become clingy or needy, and do outrageous things to attract attention, all in service to their excessive need for approval. Histrionic traits typically emerge during adolescence, and are 4-times as common among girls than boys.
- Learn more about histrionic personality disorder in children and teens. (coming soon)
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissism is defined as an unhealthy preoccupation with the self. Narcissists maintain an inflated sense of self-importance. They usually have unrealistic fantasies of success, and often experience intense envy when it comes to the accomplishments of others. They may believe they are a special person who deserves special treatment. Narcissists often come off as selfish, but their behavior is driven more by need than greed. And despite what you might think, living with an inflated sense of self-importance isn’t easy, and places those with narcissistic personality disorder under a great deal of pressure.
- Learn more about narcissistic personality disorder in children and teens. (coming soon)
Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder
This is something separate from regular OCD, which is considered an anxiety or behavioral disorder. Obsessive compulsive personality disorder is essentially the same as regular OCD, with the key exception being that the person strongly identifies with their compulsions, derives pleasure or enjoyment from them rather than frustration, and sees no need to change.
- Learn more about obsessive compulsive disorder in children and teens.
Schizophrenia is a disorder that typically emerges during adolescence, though in rare cases it is diagnosed in younger children as well. Schizophrenics suffer from a pervasive disconnect with reality. They may experience audio or visual hallucinations, seeing or hearing things that aren’t actually there. They struggle to distinguish between the thoughts in their head (which can involve many strange and elaborate theories) and the actual state of the world, confusing their own internal dialogue for reality. Because of this, many schizophrenics become paranoid, assuming that others are actively plotting against them. There are varying degrees of schizophrenia and not all schizophrenics fit the stereotype portrayed in the media.
– Stress Disorders In Children & Teens –
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, separation anxiety, and the most common, general anxiety disorder (GAD). Kids with anxiety disorders are chronic worriers. They are overly fearful and struggle with novel or unique situations. As such, they often withdraw into a shell and are reluctant to experience the world.
- Learn more about anxiety disorders in children and teens.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves a series of symptoms that emerge following a traumatic event. These symptoms can include nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty functioning after a trauma. Although PTSD holds a special place in popular culture, it is massively over-diagnosed, and fewer than 1 in 20 people truly qualify for a PTSD diagnosis following a traumatic experience.
- Learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder in children and teens.
Problems with These Mental Health Disorder Labels
It’s important to understand that all mental health labels are artificial constructs – terms psychologists have invented to describe different sets of symptoms that often cluster together. But children aren’t labels. They are unique human beings with a unique personality, behaving in their own unique ways in response to their own unique circumstances. This means they probably won’t fit perfectly into any one of these categories.
Diagnostic labels are essentially invented stereotypes used to lump children together in an attempt to better understand and treat problem behavior. So long as you remember this, these diagnoses and labels can be helpful. Just don’t get so caught up in the label that you start seeing the label rather than the child.