When a child is throwing tantrums, kicking, hitting, biting, or generally being disruptive – it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the child is angry or hostile. However, there are many cases where these outbursts are borne from anxiety or frustration that isn’t apparent to surrounding adults.

It is vital that we take the time to understand the issues behind kid’s behavioral problems appropriately. This way we can properly treat and help the child overcome their struggles.

Most often, kids who are difficult and do not follow instruction well are diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). This disorder’s symptoms include a frequent loss of temper, arguing with adults and authority figures, becoming oversensitive and easily annoyed, and active disobedience to rules and requests. For children to be diagnosed with ODD, their poor and undesirable behavior must be present for a minimum of six months.

However, it is possible the child’s behavioral difficulties are stemming from another issue. These possibilities include:


A child who has an anxiety disorder will have a much harder time coping with situations that cause them stress. If this is left untreated and the child is placed in a stressful situation, that child may exhibit oppositional tendencies to escape the situation.

If a child with anxiety is not getting the support they need, they may lash out in fear or just to gain a sense of control over the situation.

Anxiety can look like a lot of things. Mostly, people expect anxiety to look like kids frozen in fear, or clinging to their parent. However, it can also manifest in tantrums or complete meltdowns. If kids don’t have the words to express how they are feeling, or if no one is listening to them, they may try to get attention through behavioral inconsistencies.


Kids with ADHD may appear to be intentionally oppositional, especially if they are impulsive and hyperactive. They might have trouble sitting still or waiting their turn. They might have trouble interacting with other kids, taking things away from them, or impulsively saying inappropriate things. Ultimately these children often act without thinking of or realizing the consequences.

These symptoms are more often a result of the child’s diminished executive functioning skills – rather than a desire to being intentionally difficult.

Often, the child’s difficulty focusing, inability to abide with boredom, along with impulsivity and other symptoms can escalate to an eventual outburst. Many kids suffering from symptoms of ADHD have never actually been diagnosed, and kids with a history of aggression are being overlooked.

Learning Disorder

If most explosive outbursts happen at school, there is a possibility that the child is frustrated because of a learning disorder they have yet to be diagnosed with.

A learning disorder is a rather tricky thing to deal with. Because kids don’t want to reveal their struggles – for fear of looking stupid – they become masters of deceit. They act out to distract from the real problem. For example, if a child is struggling with a writing assignment, rather than ask for help, they may rip up the paper or provoke a fellow classmate. This creates a diversion.

Parents and teachers can help identify this issue by paying attention to events that lead up to the outburst and try to discern the causes of the behavioral inconsistency.

Sensory Processing Problems

Sensory processing problems occur when a child is unable to take in their surroundings without becoming totally overwhelmed. They are very sensitive and may exhibit odd behaviors such as:

  • Screaming if their faces get wet
  • Pitching a fit when their parents try to dress them
  • Crash into walls or people
  • Try to eat inedible things

Other than their mood swings or tantrums, kids with SPP are at a much higher risk of running away if they find themselves in a situation they find overwhelming. This is a result of their ‘fight or flight’ response, which will kick in if they feel overloaded. This panicked ‘knee-jerk’ reaction can put them in harm’s way.

A note to parents of difficult children:

Firstly, it’s not your fault. Your child might be struggling with something you’re not aware of yet. Be patient, and take your time to get to the root of the issue.

Secondly, don’t jump to any conclusions. Your child is not like anyone else’s child, and therefore you need to take the time to fully understand what your child needs before you can help them. Watch them, love them, encourage them, and get them the help they need – not just the first ‘quick-fix’ solution you hear of.

You’re doing great, and don’t give up.