A parent’s investigation into emotional behavior disorder usually starts with a phone call that goes something 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?”

Been there before? Perhaps you’re there now.

Emotional behavior disorder (also known as “emotional disturbance”) in teens has no single known cause, but there are a number of factors that can together foster a predisposition for it. Your teen’s ability to handle emotions can be positively or negatively impacted by their biological makeup, home life, and school environment. Fortunately, emotional disturbance can often be detected and treated as early as elementary or middle school.

Signs and Symptoms

Emotional disturbance in teens is most frequently realized in the school environment, some signs and symptoms including:

  • Difficulty learning that cannot be explained by intellectual challenges or any other health issue
  • An inability to develop healthy, interpersonal relationships with teachers and peers
  • Inappropriate thoughts, emotions, or actions under normal circumstances
  • Frequent unhappiness, depression, fear, or anxiety about life or school

Biological Factors

Chemical imbalances in the brain and body of your teen can make managing emotions a challenge. Below are some biological factors that can contribute to emotional disturbance:

  • Prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol
  • A physical illness or disability
  • An undernourished or malnourished lifestyle
  • Brain damage
  • Hereditary factors

Home Life

Trouble at home can be the #1 cause of stress or anxiety for a teen. Home life issues that have been correlated to emotional disturbance include:

  • Family income below the poverty level
  • Stress in the family unit because of divorce or some other emotional upset
  • Inconsistent rules or expectations as well as inconsistent and unhealthy discipline
  • Parents have a lack of interest or concern for the teen, which leads to a lack of supervision or neglect
  • Family members are poor role models, perhaps violent, perhaps getting in trouble with the law
  • Parents or siblings physically abuse the teen
  • There is an overall low rate of positive interactions and high rate of negative interactions in the family
  • The family has a poor attitude toward school or education


Sometimes situations at school can be the cause of emotional disturbance in teens, such as:

  • Teachers aren’t capable of managing the teen’s classroom, creating a negative environment
  • The school is insensitive to student differences or cultural issues
  • Rules are inconsistent

Preventative Measures

The best way to prevent emotional disturbance in your teen is to correct the factors in their home or school life that could be contributing to the problem. Here are some steps you could take:

  • Create consistency in your teen’s life and maintain a positive environment
  • Provide clear expectations and direct instructions to your teen for home and school life
  • Correct factors in your teen’s environment that are negative and encourage undesirable behavior
  • Punish undesirable behavior while rewarding desirable behavior
  • Have a plan for conflict resolution
  • Invest in your teen’s life and encourage their participation and belonging at home and at school

If your teen is experiencing emotional disturbance for any of the factors listed above, we are here to help. Although there is no single factor responsible for emotional disturbance, the first step toward prevention is recognizing the factors that could be causing it. We can assist parents and their teens in this process and explore treatment options at our local, Juneau Assessment Center.