Cerebral Palsy and Behavioral Disorders
This article has been fact checked by a Board Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. Sources of information for the article are listed at the bottom.
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Anyone may struggle with behavioral conditions or disorders, with challenging behaviors like aggression, impulsiveness, self-harm, and others. Children with cerebral palsy may be more vulnerable to these struggles because of the challenges that the physical disability presents or even because of the underlying brain damage that led to cerebral palsy.
Exactly what causes behavior disorders is not fully understood, but it is important for parents and other adults to look out for signs of problematic behaviors in children living with cerebral palsy. Experts in behavior and mental health can help parents and their children cope with and learn to change problem behaviors so that a child living with cerebral palsy can also learn to live with the best quality of life possible.
What Are Behavioral Disorders?
Behavioral disorders are more common in childhood than many people realize, but it can be difficult to distinguish between true disorders and responses to stress or new situations or even normal phases of development.
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 to 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 these children 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.
Than are many factors that contribute to increased behavior issues in children with cerebral palsy, including learning disabilities, seizure disorders, being male, comorbid conditions or disabilites, 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 major factor in challenging behaviors. Much like when tantrums peak at toddler age before language really develops, if a child with cerebral palsy is unable to communicate effectively, he or she 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, for 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.
There are several specific behavioral disorders that 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 that may lead to one of these diagnoses. These may include:
- 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 ten year old, is problematic. Any noticeable changes in usual behavior should also be noted. Problematic behaviors that persist for six months or more may indicate a behavioral disorder.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Parents and other caregivers that believe a child with cerebral palsy is struggling with problem behaviors should consult with professionals who 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 those that are positive and productive.
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 participate in supporting the treatment and encourage positive changes.
One of the biggest factors for helping curb problem behaviors in a child with cerebral palsy is making sure adequate supportive care is there to help minimize or manage the day to day stressors of the disability. A child that is not receiving the care he needs will continue to struggle with problematic behaviors. Home health aids, 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 in a negative way. A calm and caring environment can help support a child as he learns to make positive changes.