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What is Emotional Disturbance?

Emotional disturbance can develop in multiple different ways and knowing the warning signs is important.

What is Emotional Disturbance?

Emotional disturbance is a somewhat nebulous term that many people may assume is just another term for a mental health condition, and while it is related to mental health, emotional disturbance is quite different and specific.

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Defining Emotional Disturbance

The US government created IDEA, which stands for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This describes emotional disturbance as any one or more of thirteen different categories. These categories dictate eligibility in special education programs among other things, and can also impact children (or adults) in a number of other ways as well.

As defined by IDEA, emotional disturbance is a “condition exhibiting one or more…characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” This does not apply to children that suffer from social maladjustment, unless that maladjustment is due to defined emotional disturbance disorder qualifiers. Emotional disturbance can also known as emotional behavior disability and serious emotional disturbance.1

Characteristics of Emotional Disturbance

While these characteristics do not happen for every case of emotional disturbance, one or more of them are often indicative of something going on. These can include:

  • Hyperactivity: This is a common diagnosis for children that have an underlying emotional disturbance, although not all those with hyperactivity problems have other issues.
  • Aggression or Dangerous Behavior: It is common for those with emotional disabilities to have some degree of aggression or impulse control issues.
  • Withdrawal: The inability to cope with many common emotions is one of the common characteristics of those with emotional disabilities.
  • Immaturity: Emotional development for those with these issues is frequently delayed, and may cause them to interact as younger counterparts would.
  • Learning Difficulties: The developmental delays of those with emotional hardships will often carry over into academics, where they will generally be experienced as below-average performance for their age group.

While not all people living with these issues will display all of these signs or symptoms, they will generally display one or more at various times, especially during their developmental period.

So far, despite rigorous research, researchers have been unable to determine any single cause of emotional disturbance thus far. That being said, there are several factors that may be causes of emotional and behavioral disorders. These factors include:

  • Brain disorders
  • Diet
  • Stress
  • Problems with family functioning
  • Behavioral or emotional problems
What has been determined, however, is that emotional disturbance can affect people of any race, age, or status. It has also been shown that becoming emotionally disturbed is not the result of personal physical or mental weakness, but the direct cause cannot yet be determined.2


The signs of emotional disturbance in adults can be much different than the characteristics of emotional disturbance in children or students. The factors that many emotionally disturbed children or students will display include:

  • Emotionally disturbed children have an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • They may be unable to develop and keep appropriate, satisfactory social relationships with family, peers, and adults in the school system.
  • They may have a tendency to display inappropriate behavior or feelings in response to normal situations.
  • They may have a pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • They may be inclined to develop negative physical symptoms or fears related to personal or school problems.

Specific Emotional Disturbances

Since “emotional disturbance” is such an overarching, and somewhat outdated, term that covers a significant number of issues, it’s often helpful to take a look at common examples. Below are some of the most common disorders that may qualify someone as being emotionally disturbed.

anxiety disorders

Anxiety is a feeling that many people encounter sporadically, but for children or students specifically, anxiety can be incredibly difficult to deal with. It can be excessive and feel like a constant state of panic, even involving fear of many aspects of daily life. Chronic debilitating anxiety and panic are often simply termed “anxiety disorders.” 

bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is identified by cyclical highs and lows, where the individual will feel manic and stimulated, followed by deeply depressive or hopeless feelings. There may be significant normality between each cycle, or they may be constant, depending on the individual.

conduct disorder

Conduct disorder is sometimes the designation given to children that have significant challenges following rules or adhering to social norms and expectations. This can include aggression toward people or animals, damaging property, and the tendency to lie or steal. It is one of the more difficult diagnoses to treat, though therapy and problem-solving skill development are common routes.

eating disorders

Disordered eating is relatively to diagnose, particularly in children who aren’t in charge of their diets. They will either be eating too little or too much relative to their recommended caloric intake. As they age, they may also develop anxiety or even distress about their body type, shape, weight, or individual aspects of their body. This is far more common in women, though men can develop it as well. 

Obsessive-Compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is a subtype of anxiety disorder where the individual has recurring obsessions or compulsions. The most common include doing tasks a specific number of times, checking something over and over, such as checking the stove knobs several times before leaving the home even if the stove was not used that day, and compulsive hand washing. 

Psychotic disorders

While emotional disturbance is a general term, and psychotic disorders are a type of emotional disturbance, psychotic disorders are also a relatively broad term. It is used to describe severe types of mental illness that can cause disordered thinking or significantly altered perceptions of the world around the individual with the disorder. They can include hallucinations and delusions. Schizophrenia is one of the most well-known psychotic disorders.3

Ways to Deal With Students Who Are Emotionally Disturbed

While there are a great many ways to help students with emotional disturbance, some of the easiest and most common ways are to simply be sensitive, informed, proactive, and to advocate for the student. These can all go much further than you might think in helping and supporting the child.4
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