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Children with cerebral palsy are at risk for behavioral conditions because of the challenges that the physical disability presents and the underlying brain damage that leads to cerebral palsy. Experts in behavior and mental health can help parents and their children cope with and learn to change problem behaviors.
What Are Behavioral Disorders?
Behavioral disorders are more common in childhood than many people realize. Still, it can be difficult to distinguish between actual conditions and responses to stress or new situations, or even typical developmental phases.
To be considered a behavioral disorder, a problematic behavior or set of behaviors must be exhibited in a child for six months or longer. There must be a pattern of problematic behaviors that persist, despite interventions by parents or other adults.
Examples of problematic behaviors are those that are inappropriate for a child’s age or development status: harming self or others, destruction of property, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, lying, stealing, aggression, early engagement in risky behaviors like sex, smoking, or drinking, out of control tantrums, or doing poorly in school.
Behavior and Cerebral Palsy
Studies investigating behavior in children with cerebral palsy have found that they are more likely than their non-disabled peers to struggle with behavioral disorders.
The rate of diagnosed disorders in the cerebral palsy population is higher than in the general population of children. As much as 25 to 30 percent of children with cerebral palsy also struggle with a behavior disorder.
Many factors contribute to increased behavior issues in children with cerebral palsy, including learning disabilities, seizure disorders, being male, comorbid conditions or disabilities, and communication difficulties.
Outside factors may also contribute, including lack of proper care, stressful environment, and caregiver strain in parents or others regularly involved in the child’s care. Difficulty with communication seems to be a significant factor in challenging behaviors.
Much like when tantrums peak at the toddler age before language develops, if a child with cerebral palsy cannot communicate effectively, they may experience frustration and act out those feelings accordingly.
Signs of Behavioral Disorders
Parents and other caregivers of children with cerebral palsy must be aware of the signs of a behavioral disorder so that the child can be evaluated and treated by experts. Living with behavioral challenges is difficult for everyone, parents, and caregivers, for the child with cerebral palsy, and for family members.
Recognizing and addressing the problem behaviors early is crucial for helping a child cope and learn new and more appropriate behaviors.
Several specific behavioral disorders may be diagnosed, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder.
What is most important for parents and caregivers is to be able to recognize specific behaviors that are frequent, persistent, and problematic:
- Harming other people or animals
- Threatening others
- Destroying property
- Cheating at school
- Missing school
- Smoking, drinking, or using drugs
- Sexually inappropriate behavior
These are just some of the potentially problematic behaviors that could indicate a behavioral disorder in a child with cerebral palsy. The general rule is that any behavior that is inappropriate for a child’s developmental age, such as tantrums in a 10- year-old, is possibly problematic.
Parents should also note any unusual or abrupt changes in typical behaviors. Problematic behaviors that persist for six months or more may indicate a behavioral disorder.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Parents and other caregivers who believe a child with cerebral palsy struggles with problem behaviors should consult with professionals. They can evaluate the child, make a diagnosis, and help develop a treatment plan. As a parent, you may want to start with your child’s school.
A school psychologist or social worker may be able to do an evaluation or direct you to an appropriate professional. For children of any age, through teens, a pediatrician is a good place to start.
A behavioral health expert can evaluate your child through a series of observations and tests. Even if your child doesn’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis, an expert can still guide you to the appropriate resources or professionals that can help.
Any challenging behaviors, even those not labeled as a disorder, are disruptive and should be evaluated and addressed, both for the child and the child’s family.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a typical type of treatment or intervention for behavioral disorders. It is a type of therapy that teaches skills for identifying negative thoughts and feelings and learning to reframe or correct those negative thoughts and feelings before they become problem behaviors.
It is an effective type of treatment that helps many people, adults and children alike, learn to change negative responses and replace them with positive and productive ones.
Supporting a Child with Problem Behaviors
Recognizing and getting treatment for a child struggling with cerebral palsy-associated behavioral disorders is crucial.
These are the first steps toward helping a child learn to cope with negative emotions and other challenges that have led to problematic behaviors. Parents, family, friends, and caregivers of the child must also support the treatment and encourage positive changes.
One of the most significant factors for helping curb problem behaviors is providing supportive care to help minimize or manage the day-to-day stressors of living with cerebral palsy. A child that is not receiving the care they need will continue to struggle with problematic behaviors.
Home health aides, one-on-one assistants at school, and assistive devices for mobility and communication are all examples of supportive care that can be beneficial. Minimizing stress levels in the home environment is also important.
Some studies have shown that a parent’s stress level can impact a child’s behavior negatively. A calm and caring environment can help support a child as he learns to make positive changes.
Most importantly, see your pediatrician as soon as you suspect your child has behavioral challenges. The earlier you begin therapies and treatment, the better the outcome.
- McDermott, S., Coker, A.L., Mai, S., Krishnaswami, S., Nagle, R.J., Barnett-Queen, L.L., and Wuori, D.F. (1996, June). A Population-Based Analysis of Behavior Problems in Children with Cerebral Palsy. J. Pediatr. Psychol. 21(3), 447-63.
Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8935244/
- Child Behavior Disorders: MedlinePlus. (n.d.). MedlinePlus - Health Information from the National Library of Medicine.
Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/childbehaviordisorders.html
- NIMH » Children and Mental Health. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health.
Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/children-and-mental-health/index.shtml