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What causes problem behavior? 30 possible conditions

What Does Problem Behavior Mean?

Problem behaviors are those that aren’t considered typically acceptable. Nearly everyone can have a moment of disruptive behavior or an error in judgment. However, problem behavior is a consistent pattern.

Problem behaviors can vary in terms of severity. They can occur in children as well as in adults. People with problem behaviors often require medical intervention to improve their symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of Problem Behavior?

Problem behavior can have many symptoms, including but not limited to:

  • abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • agitation
  • angry, defiant behaviors
  • carelessness
  • disinterest or withdrawal from daily life
  • drug use
  • emotional flatness
  • excessive, disruptive talking
  • hoarding useless objects
  • inappropriate behavior
  • inflated self-esteem or overconfidence
  • obsessive thoughts
  • poor judgment
  • property damage
  • self-injury

Problem behavior can range from the absence of emotions to aggressive emotions. 

According to the Merck Manual, behavior problems often show themselves in different ways among girls and boys. For example, boys with problem behavior may fight, steal, or deface property. Girls with problem behavior may lie or run away from home. Both are at greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse.

What Causes Problem Behavior?

There are multiple causes associated with problem behavior. A psychiatric, mental health, or medical professional should evaluate a person with problem behavior to determine the cause. 

Causes of problem behavior can be a life event or family situation. A person might have a family conflict, struggle with poverty, feel anxious, or have had a death in the family. Aging can also lead to dementia, which affects a person’s behavior.

Common conditions related to problem behavior include, but aren’t limited to:

  • anxiety disorder
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • bipolar disorder
  • conduct disorder
  • delirium
  • dementia
  • depression
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • oppositional defiant disorder
  • postpartum depression
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • psychosis
  • schizophrenia
  • substance abuse

What Are the Risk Factors for Problem Behavior?

People with chronic and mental health conditions are at greater risk for problem behavior than those who don’t have these conditions.

Some problem behaviors have a genetic link. According to the Merck Manual, parents with the following problem behaviors are more likely to have children with problem behavior concerns:

  • anti-social disorder
  • ADHD
  • mood disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • substance abuse

However, people with problem behavior may also come from families with little history of problem behavior.

When Do I Seek Medical Help for Problem Behavior?

Problem behavior can be a medical emergency when the behavior includes the following:

  • contemplating suicide
  • hallucinations or hearing voices
  • harming oneself or others
  • threats of violence 

Make an appointment with your doctor if you or a loved one experience the following symptoms:

  • behavior that affects the ability to function in relationships with others, in the workplace, or at school
  • criminal behavior
  • cruelty to animals
  • engaging in intimidating, bullying, or impulsive behaviors
  • excessive feelings of isolation
  • low interest in school or work
  • social withdrawal

People with problem behavior may feel different from others, like they don’t fit in. Some may have emotions they don’t understand or can’t identify. This can lead to frustration and more problem behavior.

How Is Problem Behavior Diagnosed?

A doctor or mental health specialist can evaluate problem behaviors. They’ll likely start by taking a health history and listening to a description of an adult or child’s symptoms. Some questions a doctor may ask include:

  • When did this behavior start?
  • How long does the behavior last?
  • How has the behavior affected those around the person?
  • Has the person recently experienced any life changes or transitions that could trigger the behavior?

Doctors can use this information to pinpoint the behavior’s possible cause and diagnosis.

How Is Problem Behavior Treated?

Doctors treat problem behavior by diagnosing its causes. People who are at risk for harming themselves may require an inpatient stay at a hospital for their personal safety.

Additional treatments for problem behavior can include:

  • conflict resolution classes
  • counseling
  • group therapy
  • medications
  • parenting skills classes

Article Sources:

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental illness that develops during adolescence or early adulthood. It is marked by a pattern of emotional instability, impulsive behavior, a distorted self-image, and unstabl...

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Schizotypal Personality Disorder

Schizotypal personality disorder is one type of eccentric personality disorder. This means that the behavior and mannerisms of someone with this disorder may appear odd to others. Schizotypal personality disorder is o...

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Alcoholism is also known as alcohol dependence. It occurs when you drink so much over time that your body becomes dependent on or addicted to alcohol. When this happens, alcohol use becomes the most important thing i...

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Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder mental illness marked by extreme from mania to depression. Bipolar disorder is also called bipolar disease or manic depression.

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ADHD Basics

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a mental disorder that causes above-normal levels of hyperactive and disruptive behaviors. The cause is unknown but risk factors include genetic predisposition an...

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Dementia Overview

Dementia may affect memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior. Mental impairment must affect at least two brain functions to be considered dementia.

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Schizophrenia Overview

Schizophrenia is the common term for a group of serious psychiatric conditions called the schizophrenic disorders, which are generally characterized by hallucinations and delusions. Auditory hallucinations (hearin...

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What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease (AD), the most common cause of dementia, is a progressive brain disorder. Learn about the causes, signs and research being done about AD.

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Autism Overview

Autism is one of a group of neurodevelopmental disorders, which are characterized by impaired communication and social interaction, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviors or interests.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Delirium is an abrupt change in the brain that causes mental confusion and emotional disruption. It makes it difficult to think, remember, sleep, pay attention, and more. You might experience the condition durin...

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Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is the name for the symptoms that occur when a heavy drinker suddenly stops or significantly reduces their alcohol intake. With AWS, you may feel mild anxiety and fatigue. You may als...

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Psychosis is a serious mental disorder characterized by thinking and emotions that are so impaired, that they indicate that the person experiencing them has lost contact with reality. People who are psychotic have fals...

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. Usually it occurs after an impact to your head or after a whiplash-type injury. A concussion can cause many severe symptoms that affect brain function.

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Dysthymia is chronic depression with recurring symptoms of sadness and hopelessness lasting for several years. It is not characterized by acute depressive episodes but by an ongoing depressed feeling. Dysthymia is mos...

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Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Alcohol withdrawal delirium (AWD) is the most serious form of alcohol withdrawal. It causes sudden and severe problems in your brain and nervous system. Approximately five percent of hospital patients being treated fo...

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Cocaine and related disorders

Cocaine is extracted from the coca plant, which grows in Central and South America. It is processed into many forms for use as an illegal drug of abuse.

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Amphetamine Dependence

People who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder sometimes require amphetamines to help them cope. Some people take amphetamines to treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder. Amphetamines are a type of stimulant, ...

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Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is a group of behavioral and emotional problems that usually begins during childhood or teenage years. People with the disorder have a long-term and continual pattern of behavior that violates th...

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Adjustment Disorder

Adjustment disorder is an unexpectedly strong emotional or behavioral reaction that occurs in response to an identifiable stressful life event or life change that occurred within the previous three months. ...

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Depression Overview

Depression is a mood disorder that can cause extreme and persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Depression type largely determines what kind of medical treatment is best.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.