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Behavioral Problems in Preschool Children

By Layne Wood ; Updated June 13, 2017

Some misbehavior is a normal part of childhood development. Often, children test rules and boundaries by misbehaving in order to discover what caregivers will and will not allow. Other times, children do not know the rules or understand the concept of appropriate behavior. However, in some cases, behavioral problems are a symptom of an underlying problem that is causing stress or anxiety in the child.

Common Stressors in Children

Children often become irritable and moody when they are tired or hungry. Other stressors that can cause behavioral problems in preschool children include problems at home or issues in the childcare environment. Stress occurs when a person feels overwhelmed by something. Children who are exposed to tension and fighting between their parents or between parents and an older child often feel confused and frightened, sometimes leading to misbehavior. Children may also experience stress or anxiety due to situations at a babysitter’s house or in daycare.


As of 2006, 4.5 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD, and a diagnosis is more common in older children than it is in children under 12 years old.

ADHD symptoms usually appear before age 7. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics previously didn't recommend that doctor's diagnosis ADHD until children are at least 6-years-old, as of 2011 the expanded guidelines allow for a diagnosis as young as 4-years. Symptoms are categorized as inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Children with ADHD may exhibit symptoms from one, two or all three categories.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Though it is normal for children to occasionally defy authority figures such as parents and preschool teachers, extremes in this behavior may indicated a behavioral problem called oppositional defiant disorder. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry defines oppositional defiant disorder as “an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the youngster’s day to day functioning.” These behaviors include irritability, anger, hateful language, vengefulness and frequent temper tantrums.

Separation Anxiety

Most children experience some degree of separation anxiety when left with different caregivers. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, about 4 percent of children suffer from clinical separation anxiety disorder. These children experience extreme homesickness and often worry that something bad will happen to their loved ones while they are separated. Children with separation anxiety disorder may act out by crying, screaming and clinging to the parent, refusing to let her leave; these children take an inordinately long time to calm down once the parent is gone and may be uncooperative for the new caregiver.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders are rare, but not unheard of, in preschool-age children. The most frequent mood disorders seen in young children include major depression and dysthymia, or mild depression. Major depression occurs in about 2 percent of prepubescent children. Behavioral symptoms include irritability and difficulty concentrating. Because many medical issues cause symptoms similar to those of depression, a medical evaluation is necessary to rule out problems such as anemia, renal disease and thyroid problems.

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