Signs of Abnormal Emotional Development in Children

Abnormal childhood emotional behavior is more complex than a set of specific symptoms that designate behavior as abnormal. What makes a child’s emotional behavior abnormal is the extent to which their emotional behavior is chronically disruptive, how severe it is and how much it impedes the child’s ability to function, according to an article at the website for the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. According to, two areas that children with emotional behavior disorders frequently have problems with are their social relationships and academic achievement 234.

Externalizing Behaviors

Children who externalize behaviors are the easiest to detect because they are directing their emotions and behavior externally toward other people or objects. These antisocial behaviors include:

  • acting-out through noncompliance
  • defiance
  • anger
  • aggression
  • tantrums
  • stealing
  • lying

Because of their antisocial behavior, these youngsters frequently have discipline issues at school.

Internalizing Behaviors

Children who exhibit internalizing emotional behaviors often go undetected because they do not present a threat to others as their antisocial peers do. Children who internalize their emotional disorders direct their behavior internally 5. Their lack of social skills robs them of the experiential learning that takes place by participating with peers. The extreme emotional discomfort of their disorder can, if left undiagnosed, result in self-destructive actions.

Academic Achievement

Another symptom of abnormal emotional behavior in children is the lack of academic achievement. Students with emotional behavior disorders typically have the worst attendance records and perform years below grade level with severe deficiencies in reading and math. points out that while most students pay attention to teachers and stay on task 85 percent of the time, students with emotional behavior disorders only stay on task 60 percent of the time 245.


IQ testing is a snapshot of how a child performs or tests at a given time. If a child’s disruptive emotional behavior has affected what they have or haven't learned in school, then IQ testing can reflect more of a lack of knowledge rather than measuring intelligence. It is difficult for researchers to determine whether children with emotional behavior disorders are inherently less intelligent than their nondisabled peers. However, there are more emotionally disabled children whose IQ test results were in the significantly below average to mildly retarded range in comparison to nondisabled children.

Social Skills

The antisocial behavior that frequently accompanies emotional behavior disorders wreaks havoc with social relationships. According to, how well a child can make and maintain friendships and other relationships is a gauge of how well the child will adjust in the future. Social behaviors that can indicate emotional behavior problems include low empathy for others, low-quality relationships with friends, infrequent contact with friends and reduced participation in extracurricular activities in school 3.