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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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