What Is an Emotional Disturbance?

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  • Written By: Karize Uy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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Emotional disturbance is a form of disorder often seen in children who are educationally of age. The disorder is most often associated with mental and social abilities, or lack thereof, and is not connected with a physiological defect in the brain. The United States’ Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has included this disorder as a qualifying disability for children to receive government support.

The IDEA describes a child as having emotional disturbance when his incapacity for learning is not contributed by physiological or logical reasons. The child is also observed to have difficulty in preserving a relationship with a person, much less creating an initial bond. A persistent melancholic temperament can also be observed, as well as improper modes of conduct in normal and habitual situations. Formation of social-related anxieties can also be associated with this mental disorder. All of these can result in impeding a child’s ability to develop and learn in school.

Parents and teachers alike should be watchful for other symptoms that can point to emotional disturbance. Aside from the description stated above, a child can also show bouts of hyperactivity, being impulsive and having a shorter attention span. At times, he can be overly aggressive, either towards his peers or to himself. In contrast, a child can be very withdrawn, choosing to isolate himself especially in gatherings like parties and reunions. Associated both with aggression and isolation are juvenile behaviors, such as tantrums and shouting.


Emotional disturbance can bring about damaging consequences, so early detection is key. This is especially important, as many children do not exhibit the symptoms habitually, and detection might be too late. Children with emotional disturbance may not only suffer from learning and other school-related problems, but also suffer from psychological difficulties, such as low self-esteem. If the disorder is not treated early, it can lead to other psychological disorders, such as bipolar, body dysmorphic, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

In the US, children whose emotional disturbance is severe can qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the IDEA. The IEP ensures that the child not only gets a customized education fit for his situation, but his social, emotional, and mental problems will also be addressed. In some cases, the child can be taught specialized skills in order to build his self-worth and sense of purpose in his daily living. Aside from the IEP, the child’s family should also hold a very important role on his way to treatment. Constant communication and interaction with familiar people are found to have a strong effect on a child suffering from emotional disturbance.


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