Psychologists can help children to diagnose disorders or help clarify behavioural or emotional difficulties. Often, children with intense challenging behaviours can have underlying causes such as developmental or learning disabilities (such as autism), hyperactivity, depression, anxiety, phobias, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), school refusal, trauma or grief and loss issues. Psychologists can work with children and their parents/carers to not only better understand the behaviours, but to better manage them to enhance the child’s level of functioning and promote independence.
How are behavioural disorders or difficulties diagnosed?
Psychologists or medical doctors can diagnose behavioural and developmental disorders. This process often involves conducting comprehensive interviews and gaining background information about the child from the child, parents and other family members, and school teachers. Standardised assessments or questionnaires may also be used.
Behavioural disorders can often be associated with mental health disorders, however in children mental health diagnoses are often not made until the individual turns 18. This is because children are in a stage of continual development; as they get older they are developing and maturing physically, emotionally, psychologically and cognitively. As such, it is often difficult for professionals to make concrete mental health diagnoses, as children’s personalities are also developing as they transition into adolescence and young adulthood.
Common behavioural problems in children
Parents may seek professional help for a large variety of children’s challenging behaviours. Some common examples of difficult behaviours include:
- Poor ability to obey instructions/directions
- Aggression towards others (peers and adults)
- Behaviours such as stealing or lying
- Inordinate whining or crying
- Excessive argumentative behaviours
- Teasing or bullying other people/peers
- Difficulty accepting situations where their requests/demands are not met
- Tantrums and excessive anger, problems managing their anger
- Poor level of independence (e.g. performing chores, self-care)
- School refusal or poor engagement in school (e.g. not completing homework or not attending class)
- Not cooperating with routines
- Excessive neediness for attention of parents/carers
- Poor ability to form friendships
How are behavioural difficulties helped by psychology?
Naturally, therapy plans will vary depending on the child and the specific issues involved, but often psychologists work with children and their parents and other significant family members. Strategies may involve:
- Family therapies – the family engages in therapy to improve communication between individuals and increase how the family as a unit collaborates to solve problems
- Educating parents or primary carers – teaching parents/carers how to better manage the confronting behaviours of their children, and communicate better with them
- Improving social skills – improving how the child converses and engages with others, including play
- Managing anger – helping the child to better understand and deal with their own emotions, such as frustration and anger. The child is encouraged to identify when they are becoming frustrated or emotional, and is taught coping skills to better manage these impulses and feelings.
- Stress management and relaxation techniques
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a type of therapy that aims to give the child skills to recognise and manage their thoughts and subsequent behaviour
- Involve other supports as appropriate – a child may need other supports or therapies, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy. A child with learning difficulties may also need other professional supports involved.
- Medications – doctors may prescribe medications to help control impulsive or extremely agitated or anxious behaviours
- Promoting a more positive and encouraging environment – ongoing encouragement of the child to engage in activities that highlight their talents or interests, to foster their self-esteem and confidence