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Posted May 01 2005 12:00am

Causes of EBD: General Ideas

Besides definition and identification, another difficult question about emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) is this: Why do kids have them? In most instances, an honest answer is, “We don’t really know why this individual has EBD, but we do know some of the factors that increase the probability that an individual will get EBD.”

In my book on the characteristics of children and youth with EBD (Kauffman, 2005), I have separate chapters devoted to what I think we know about physiology, families, schools, and cultures as causal factors. The mark of the ideologue and the uninformed on this topic of causes is the assumption that a single event or factor is the cause in many or most cases. Every indication is that the causes are typically multiple and complex.

Malnutrition, physical illness, and a variety of other biochemical processes obviously are related to behavior. Genetic factors are probably the most often obvious physiological contributors to EBD. Even in the disorders known to have a high genetic component (especially schizophrenia and depression), environmental events play an important role in triggering the disorder. However, reviews of research and commentaries based on the research literature (e.g., Gottesman’s 1991 book, Schizophrenia Genesis; Pinker’s 2002 book, The Blank Slate; Weine’s 1999 book, Time, Love, Memory) clearly indicate that nearly all patterns of behavior and internal states are heavily influenced by genetic factors (and what is EBD but a pattern of behavior and internal states?). In short, I find the literature unequivocal in suggesting that genetic factors play an important but nonexclusive role in causing EBD. True, we don’t know exactly how the genetic factors work or which genes are involved. We simply know that for some disorders (schizophrenia being the best example) genetic factors are undeniable, and we have good reason to suspect that genetic factors are involved in most or all other disorders. So, I think we can chalk one up for this statement: Physiology, especially one’s genetic endowment, contributes to the development of EBD.

Family factors in EBD can’t be denied, but the idea that parenting alone causes children to be autistic, schizophrenic, depressed, or to have other disorders is, to the careful scholar, a mistaken notion contrived by psychoanalytic ideologues and those who know little of the literature. True, parents can mismanage their children’s behavior. Perhaps the work of Gerald Patterson of the University of Oregon (see especially his 1982 book, Coercive Family Process) is unrivaled at showing how parents can become involved in contributing to the very behavior they find distressing. But neither Patterson nor his research associates have demonstrated (or believe they have demonstrated) that families alone are responsible for causing their children’s EBD or that families typically are the cause. We know this: Parental mismanagement, neglect, and abuse (both physical and psychological abuse, neglect, or mistreatment) can be contributing causes in EBD.

Teachers, like parents, can contribute to the very behavior they find distressing. But something that presses my buttons for outrage is the notion that schools or teachers alone make children into EBD students. I surely realize some of the ways in which schools can and do contribute to children’s misbehavior and unhealthful emotional states. And I discuss the specifics in my text, including insensitivity to children as individuals, inappropriate expectations for behavior and performance, inconsistent behavior management, instruction in nonfunctional skills, ineffective instruction in critical skills, destructive contingencies of reinforcement, and models of undesirable conduct. Yes, schools can foster bad behavior, push students over the edge, nudge students (even inadvertently) toward EBD, and, in short, make matters worse instead of better. Sometimes, I suspect, schools and teachers do a lot to contribute to giving children and youth an EBD (and toward giving adults in the know the heebee-jeebies). But assuming that if a teacher has a problem with a student then that teacher is malevolent or incompetent is the same unwarranted mistake as assuming that if a kid has a problem it’s the parent’s fault. Good parents and good teachers can, and often do, have kids with EBD that is not of their making. Here’s what I think we know: Schools and teachers can contribute in a variety of ways to the reasons that kids have EBD.

Finally, we know that the broader culture, not just family and school, may affect how a student behaves and feels and may contribute to causing EBD. These broader cultural factors include the peer group, the media, the community, and various parts of the community (e.g., housing, physical characteristics of the home and surroundings, church and religious institutions, opportunities for recreation and employment, government policy, etc.). I think we’re justified in concluding that cultural factors such as dangerous neighborhoods, antisocial peers, violence in the media, poverty and its attendant deprivations, and other disadvantages can contribute to causing EBD.

All of this leads to the conclusion that to the question of causes there are no easy answers. Probably, in every single case of EBD the causes are multiple and complex, not singular or simple. If we find something that we think is contributing to EBD, we should fix it (i.e., correct it) if we can. If we can’t change it, then we should try to work around it to make the kids’ environment, behavior, and internal states better. We can nearly always change at least one contributing cause (e.g., how we interact with the kid); some causal factors we can’t change (genetics, most obviously). It’s important to know the difference between what we can change and what we can’t and to change what we can.


Kauffman, J. M. (2005). Characteristics of emotional and behavioral disorders of children and youth (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.


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