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What is Emotional Disturbance?

An emotional disturbance can be defined as various mental health conditions that create emotional, physical, and behavioral distress over time.


Emotional disturbance refers to conditions that create behavioral issues. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), emotional disturbances can affect an individual in areas beyond the emotional. Depending on the specific mental disorder involved, a person’s physical, social, or cognitive skills may also be affected.1
There is little evidence to determine the cause or causes of emotional and behavioral disorders. But several factors may result in the development of an emotionally disturbed individual. These include heredity, brain injury, attachment issues, chronic stress, abuse, or learned behavior within the family.

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Characteristics of Emotional Disturbance

To help determine the presence of an emotional disturbance disorder, several characteristics help make that determination. Some of the signs of emotional disturbance in adults and children include:
  • Hyperactivity: In an emotionally disturbed child, there may be the presence of hyperactivity, which is determined by the child exhibiting a short attention span and impulsive behavior.
  • Aggression or Self-Injurious Behavior: People with emotional problems may also exhibit aggressive behavior or self-injurious behavior. This may look like the individual acting out, fighting, or causing self-harm.
  • Withdrawal: Another important characteristic of emotional disturbance includes difficulties interacting socially or maintaining social relationships. If the individual cannot initiate or maintain interpersonal relationships or exhibits excessive fear or anxiety, that may be a sign of a serious emotional disturbance.
  • Immaturity: An emotional disturbance disorder may also be characterized by immaturity. This could present as inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, or poor coping skills that differ from the individual’s age, gender, or culture.2
  • Learning Difficulties: Emotionally disturbed students may also show the presence of learning difficulties, including academically performing below their expected grade level or an inability to learn.

What Causes Emotional Disturbance?

As previously mentioned, there is little evidence to determine the cause or causes of emotional disturbance. However, some factors may be related to the development of emotional disorders. These potential factors will be detailed below.

Brain Disorder

The brain is often the root cause of emotional disturbance disorder. It could be due to a chemical imbalance, brain injury, illness, or problems during a mother’s pregnancy that contribute to the development of emotional concerns of a child.


Diet may also play a role in causing an emotional disturbance. Malnourishment can be a determining factor in developing a severe emotional disturbance.


Severe stress is often associated with the development of emotional disability in adults and children. Chronic stress, violence, or abuse can increase the prevalence of an emotional behavioral disorder.

Family Functioning

Parents and family are vital in the healthy development of children. Therefore, how the family functions can also contribute to developing emotionally disturbed behaviors. This includes neglect, lack of structure, inconsistent expectations or discipline, distant parents, excessive rules, or having few limits or expectations.3

Learned Behavior

Learned behavior can also be a contributing cause of emotional disturbance. Children with emotional problems often learn that their emotional or behavioral outbursts get them attention or are a way for them to receive attention from parents or teachers.

Symptoms of Emotionally Disturbed Students

There are many symptoms to pay attention to in emotionally disturbed students. According to IDEA, emotional disturbance includes symptoms occurring over a long period and affects the child’s educational performance. Many of these symptoms can also be signs of emotional disturbance in adults. Symptoms of emotionally disturbed individuals will be discussed further below.

Inability to Learn

The inability to learn cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors, despite providing instructional support and services.

Unable to Maintain Relationships

The emotionally disturbed child may be unable to develop and keep appropriate, satisfactory social relationships with family, peers, and adults in the school system, including physical or verbal aggression, lack of effect, or withdrawal from social interactions.

Inappropriate Behavior

A tendency to display inappropriate behavior or feelings in response to normal situations, such as throwing temper tantrums, limited self-control, low frustration tolerance, or inappropriate crying.


The emotionally disturbed child may show a consistent pattern of depression or unhappiness, which is not a response to situational factors.


The emotional disability includes the development of negative physical symptoms or fears related to personal or school problems, including headaches, gastrointestinal issues, panic attacks, and irrational fears.

Specific Emotional Disturbances

Emotional disturbance is often an umbrella term for various mental health conditions, and there can be an extensive list of emotional disabilities. Types of emotional disabilities can include:

Anxiety Disorders

The term anxiety disorders encompass disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, or phobias. These types of emotional disturbances are considered one of the most common mental health conditions affecting children and adults.4

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is often associated with a combination of mania and depression, in which an individual experiences extreme highs and severe lows in their mood. This is a very common emotional disability in adults.5

Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is an emotional and behavioral disorder that occurs in children and teens. It is characterized by a disregard for others, problems following rules, and a pattern of explosive or violent behavior.6

Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a pattern of disordered eating behaviors such as eating too much or too little. Types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors. The repetitive behaviors, or compulsions, are often rituals and include handwashing, counting, cleaning, checking, or tapping.

Psychotic Disorders

Psychotic disorder is also an umbrella term for any emotional disturbance disorder involving symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, and unusual behavior patterns. Schizophrenia is the most recognized psychotic disorder.
This list of emotional disabilities is only an example of some of the types of emotional disabilities that can affect both children and adults. There are a variety of emotional disturbances or mental health conditions.

Ways to Deal With Students Who Are Emotionally Disturbed

Emotional disturbance treatment may be determined by the type and characteristics of the emotional disturbance. However, there are some ways to deal with the emotional concerns of a child. The best ways to deal with emotional disorders includes:
  • Be sensitive, establish a welcoming environment, and focus on positive reinforcement.
  • Be informed, learn the difference between emotional disturbances versus other health impairments, and how this may affect the student and the classroom.
  • Be proactive, prepare resources, modify materials, and consider emotional disturbance accommodations to help the student and classroom adjust.
  • Be a team player and communicate with the student, parents, and guardians.
  • Be an advocate, get to know the student, and how emotional disturbance is regulated by IDEA.

Get Help with Emotional Disturbance at Ripple Ranch Recovery

At Ripple Ranch Recovery, our dedicated team provides treatment options for various emotional disturbances. Contact Ripple Ranch Recovery at 830-224-2121 to find out more or get started with treatment.