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Everything You Need to Know about Emotional Behavior Disorder and Teens

If you’re not familiar with the term “emotional behavior disorder,” perhaps you might be more familiar with how it shows up in your teen’s life. Oftentimes, a parent’s first official introduction to an emotional behavior disorder begins with a phone call like this:

"Hello, Mrs. ___. It's the principal's office. Your (son or daughter) has been exhibiting some concerning behavior, and we thought we'd give you a call. Anytime their teachers try to involve them in a class activity, their response is extremely negative. Is there something going on at home or in their life that we could be better aware of?"

The call from the principal confirms what you have already noticed. Your teen has been acting out a lot lately. They’re defying authority and are angry and arguing with you quite a bit. You’re not really sure where all of this pent up frustration is coming from. Many parents have been there. And in this case, your teen could have an emotional behavior disorder.

What is an emotional behavior disorder? There are several known emotional behavior disorders (also called an “emotional disturbance”) that can contribute to a teen displaying what is typically described as “bad behavior.”

What are different types of behavior disorders? The most common behavior disorders are:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which leads to difficulty maintaining attention, hyperactivity, or impulsiveness.

  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) might be the case if a teen is irritable and hostile toward authority. Argumentative behavior and grudge-holding or revenge-seeking are also characteristics of ODD.

  • Conduct Disorder, often manifested as harming people or animals, property damage, theft, premature sexual activity, and consistently breaking major rules at home or at school. Conduct disorder is characterized by violating people’s basic rights or social rules.

  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) is characterized by explosive outbursts of anger or violence. They are usually seen as extreme reactions to the situation at hand, such as screaming or verbal/physical aggression.

  • Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is characterized by extreme use of one or more substances to the point of clinically significant impairment.

What are the signs and symptoms of an emotional disturbance? That phone call from the principal is in fact a very real situation for many parents since emotional disturbances in teens are most frequently observed in school, a place with clear boundaries and authority as well as expectations from students.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Difficulty learning

  • Trouble developing healthy relationships with teachers and peers

  • Inappropriate thoughts, emotions or behavior under normal circumstances

  • Unhappiness, depression, fear or anxiety about life or school

What contributes to emotional behavior disorders? While there is no known cause, factors that range from a teen’s home life to their biological makeup can contribute to a behavior disorder.

Biological factors can include chemical imbalance in the brain or body, a physical illness or disability, hereditary factors or brain damage, among many other reasons.

Home life also plays a role and can be a major stressor in the life of a teen. Poverty, divorce, poor parental role models, physical or mental abuse and neglect can lead to a teen acting out.

And even the school environment can cause emotional disturbances for a child, from inconsistent rules to a teacher who cannot properly manage a classroom.

With that being said, there are countless factors that might contribute to a teen making poor behavior choices, but what characterizes an emotional behavior disorder is behavior that is severe and consistent over time.

How can I support my teen with an emotional behavior disorder? By correcting what you can at home or at school that may be playing a negative role in your teen’s life, you might be able to prevent emotional disturbances.

A few steps you can take include:

  • Create consistency in your teen’s life

  • Maintain a positive environment

  • Provide your teen with direct instructions and expectations for home and school

  • Punish undesirable behavior and reward good behavior

  • Have a plan for conflict resolution

  • Invest in your teen’s life

  • Encourage them to participate in activities at home and at school

There are also treatment options for emotional behavior disorders that you can look into. They vary depending on the disorder and the severity, but oftentimes include cognitive behavioral therapy (aka “talk therapy”), group therapy, parent programs and medication. Many times, some of these treatments are combined to help parents and their teens learn how to manage and/or reduce symptoms while also strengthening the teen’s social and behavioral skills.

Please know that if you’re helping your teen navigate a behavior disorder, you’re not alone. We encourage you to seek the support your family needs. Reach out to us at The Link, (907) 789-7610 (or to learn about available resources in the Juneau area.

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