Externalizing Disorders in Children: What You Should Know

Externalizing disorders are typical of disobedient, impulsive, and irritable children. Acting as soon as possible is essential in order to avoid future consequences. We'll tell you how.
Externalizing Disorders in Children: What You Should Know

Last update: 02 August, 2022

There are children who are categorized as difficult, rebellious, aggressive, or disobedient. These are children who drive their parents and teachers crazy and whose behavior causes conflict and discomfort in their usual environments. Although correcting their behavior can be a complex and desperate challenge, it’s possible to achieve it if the problem is addressed in time. If not, these externalizing disorders can become chronic and generate serious problems in the future.

It’s worth mentioning that these types of attitudes and reactions should always be analyzed in the light of developmental psychology. That is, a certain degree of disobedience or opposition is natural and healthy at certain stages of development, as it reflects the process of assertion of individuality. However, when such behaviors interfere with daily life or cause suffering due to their intensity, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Here we’ll tell you everything you need to know about them and how to act in these cases. Don’t stop reading!

What are externalizing disorders?

In general, we can classify emotional and behavioral problems in children and adolescents into two categories:

  1. Internalizing disorders: These refer to anxious and depressive behaviors, somatic symptoms, or feelings of inferiority.
  2. Externalizing disorders: These are associated with aggressiveness, lack of attention, or disobedience.

The latter have been found to be more frequent in boys, while internalizing disorders are more present in girls. In addition, we know that if they’re not addressed in time, they can lead to certain risk behaviors in adolescence or adulthood, such as drug use or delinquent behaviors, among others.

Externalizing problems are very striking and disruptive, annoying, worrying, and interfere in the daily lives of children, parents, and teachers. While they’re easy to detect, they can be complicated to treat and correct. But a first step to achieving this is to know what kind of disorders fall into this category, so we’ll tell you about them below.

A mother talking to a professionanal about her disobedient child.
ADHD may be one of the causes that explain the behavioral problems of the child and should be addressed by a team of professionals trained in the area.

1. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

This is characterized by a continuing pattern of inattention, psychomotor agitation, and a tendency toward impulsivity. These children are often disorganized and restless and have a hard time following directions and completing tasks, concentrating, or waiting their turn. They have an irascible temperament and don’t tolerate frustration well. In addition, they tend to have frequent mood swings.

2. Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

These children are usually disruptive and disobedient, uncooperative, and often resist authority. They’re easily irritated or angry and tend to lose their temper. It’s common for them to argue frequently or even intentionally annoy others. In addition, they tend to be spiteful and vindictive.

3. Intermittent explosive disorder (IED)

This is characterized by sudden and intense explosions of anger and aggression, which arise without apparent cause and are uncontrollable.

During outbursts, physical or verbal violence often appears and children may assault others or damage objects. In these circumstances, they also often experience great distress and certain somatic symptoms, such as tremors or tightness in the chest.

4. Conduct disorders

Conduct disorders encompass all disruptive and problematic behavior patterns that have a significant and negative impact on the environment. They usually involve irritability, frequent anger and fighting, disobedience, and disrespect.

Children with conduct disorders tend to lie, break rules, and not take responsibility for their actions. They may even engage in certain vandalism or criminal acts.

The treatment of externalizing disorders

As you can see, despite their distinctive characteristics, all these disorders are quite similar to each other and their consequences, both short and long term, are important. For this reason, it’s essential to intervene as early as possible, under the guidance of a professional who involves the family in the treatment.

It’s worth emphasizing that all these behaviors are usually the manifestation of underlying emotional problems. The parenting style applied at home is closely related to these and it’s essential that parents are involved in making changes. Allowing emotional expression, providing sufficient and consistent affection, and setting appropriate limits are basic guidelines to follow.

As for treatment options, cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven to be highly effective. It seeks to inform and train parents in the use of behavior modification techniques, which will allow them to correct undesired behaviors and improve the bond with their children. In addition, children are taught various social skills, such as emotional management, impulse control, or assertiveness.

A screaming girl and a stressed out mom.
Children’s behavioral problems don’t improve spontaneously over time but can worsen. Therefore, the family should be involved in the change and seek help from the health team.

Behavioral problems don’t improve over time without intervention

In short, externalizing disorders generate great discomfort for both the child and their close environment and tend to worsen over time if they’re not treated. Therefore, if you consider that your child may present any of the above conditions, don’t hesitate to seek professional advice.

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  • Alarcón Parco, D., & Bárrig Jó, P. S. (2015). Conductas internalizantes y externalizantes en adolescentes. Liberabit21(2), 253-259.
  • Battagliese, G., Caccetta, M., Luppino, O. I., Baglioni, C., Cardi, V., Mancini, F., & Buonanno, C. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for externalizing disorders: A meta-analysis of treatment effectiveness. Behaviour research and therapy75, 60-71.