Characteristics of Destructive Behavior in Children

All children engage in destructive behaviors from time to time. They yank toys apart, throw things when they become angry, stomp around the house and pull the cat's tail. But destructive behaviors that cause serious harm or damage to your child, others or the environment can be a sign of a serious, underlying mental health disorder, like conduct disorder. Knowing the characteristics of red-flag destructive behavior can help you decide when to call in professional help.


One of the most troublesome types of destructive behaviors in children is self-harm or self-injury, also referred to as deliberate self-harm. Depending on their age, children who engage in self-harm might cut themselves on purpose, burn their skin, punch or hit things to purposely experience pain, stick objects in their skin, bang their heads against the wall or engage in other activities that people typically find painful. The reasons children engage in this behavior are complex, but can be due to underlying emotional pain, frustration, anger or sadness. If your child engages in this behavior, it's vital that you seek immediate psychiatric attention.


Aggressive behaviors in children are often ignored until they become destructive. Aggressive behaviors include physical actions like attacking other children, verbal actions like taunting others or a combination of physical and verbal actions, like bullying. Children who engage in these behaviors are, more often than not, seeking attention or venting their frustrations in the only way they know how. Evaluating the severity of aggressive behavior is somewhat dependent on the age of the child. For example, it's normal for a 2 year old to have a temper tantrum when he doesn't get his way, but it might be more problematic or serious in an older child. An evaluation by a mental health professional can help determine the root cause of this type of behavior and provide measures to prevent it from escalating.

Destruction of Property

Destroying property, especially while displaying little regard for the feelings of others or no concern for the consequences, is another destructive behavior that should raise a red flag. Children who purposely destroy the property of others might be acting out due to spiteful or vengeful reasons, frustration or anger, according to an article on the Canyon View Medical Group website. Examples of this type of behavior can include vandalism, punching holes in the walls, kicking cars or other inanimate objects or other types of acting-out behaviors that result in damage to the property of the child or others. Children who regularly destroy property on purpose and with severity should be evaluated by a mental health professional.

Disruptive Behaviors

Disruptive behaviors are also often destructive, in the sense that they interfere with the actions or regular functioning of others. Examples of disruptive behavior include acting out in class, interrupting others, disobeying authority figures or frequently arguing with others. In the classroom, disruptive behaviors can quite literally destroy other students' learning ability 3. More often than not, disruptive children are seeking attention and approval, but in socially unacceptable ways. Sometimes, parents can address disruptive behaviors through positive reinforcement, spending more time with their children and modelling acceptable behaviors. However, if the behavior persists, you should consult a qualified mental health professional.

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