Pearl: When asking about aggressive outbursts, make sure to concentrate not just on the outburst, but on the behavior and mood between outbursts. If the mood between outbursts is chronically irritable or sad, this might indicate a mood disorder rather than a primary disruptive behavior disorder.
Treatment. Treatment for aggressive behavior really calls for an "all hands on deck" family-based intervention. Parenting interventions will work best when the parents themselves are as healthy as they can be. Working with them to ensure that aggressive behavior, substance abuse, or anxiety is adequately treated through referral is an important step.
Next, the parenting interventions should involve those best informed by evidence-based practice, which typically include components of reducing the cycle of reinforcing aggressive behavior, noticing and rewarding prosocial behavior, and ceasing corporal punishment and replacing it with predictable, logical consequences for aggressive behavior. There are several excellent programs that therapists can use with parents, and referring to a therapist working with an evidence-based treatment program makes sense. There is a table listing parent management training packages that can be found in the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) Practice Parameters for ODD (J. Am. Acad. Child. Adolesc. Psychiatry 2007;46:126-41).
Wellness interventions such as ensuring hydration and adequate caloric intake can make a difference in the management of aggression. It’s harder to maintain control when you are concentrating on the grumbling of your stomach. Further, using exercise and sports as an intervention allows children to channel some of their negative aggressive impulses into positive, prosocial activities.
Pharmacotherapy is not indicated for ODD or CD, except to target co-occurring symptoms. For example, treatment of ADHD or anxiety can quite successfully reduce impulsive or reactive aggression, and can make it easier to treat the ODD or CD through parent management techniques. In very severe cases of aggression, treatment with other agents such as mood stabilizers or antipsychotics might be indicated, but this would likely be implemented only in consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Finally, there is little to no evidence for a mock incarceration or boot camp approach with children who exhibit oppositional behavior. In fact, it’s very possible that these kinds of programs can make the behaviors worse (J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 1999;38:1320-1; "Aggression and Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents: Research and Treatment" [New York: The Guilford Press, 2002]).
When to consult? Uncomplicated aggressive behavior can be managed by the primary care team with consultation from a therapist using evidence-based approaches. If there is poor treatment response, or if the aggression is severe enough to cause serious physical injury, or if there is concern for a cycling mood disorder (such as bipolar disorder – a topic for a later column), then consultation with a child psychiatrist is likely appropriate.
Dr. Althoff is an associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. He is director of the division of behavioral genetics and conducts research on the development of self-regulation in children. Dr. Althoff has received grants/research support from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and the Klingenstein Third Generation Foundation, and honoraria from the Oakstone General Publishing for CME presentations.