What Is Conduct Disorder?
Conduct disorder is a group of behavioral and emotional problems
that usually begins during childhood or adolescence. Children and adolescents with
the disorder have a difficult time following rules and behaving in a socially
acceptable way. They may display aggressive, destructive, and deceitful
behaviors that can violate the rights of others. Adults and other children may
perceive them as “bad” or delinquent, rather than as having a mental illness.
If your child has conduct disorder, they may appear tough and
confident. In reality, however, children who have conduct disorder are often
insecure and inaccurately believe that people are being aggressive or threatening
Types of Conduct Disorder
There are three types of conduct disorder. They’re categorized according
to the age at which symptoms of the disorder first occur:
- Childhood onset occurs when the signs of conduct
disorder appear before age 10.
- Adolescent onset occurs when the signs of
conduct disorder appear during the teenage years.
- Unspecified onset means the age at which conduct
disorder first occurs is unknown.
Some children will be diagnosed with conduct disorder with
limited prosocial emotions. Children with this specific type of conduct
disorder are often described as callous and unemotional.
What Are the Symptoms of Conduct Disorder?
Children who have conduct disorder are often hard to control and
unwilling to follow rules. They act impulsively without considering the
consequences of their actions. They also don’t take other people’s feelings
into consideration. Your child may have conduct disorder if they persistently display
one or more of the following behaviors:
- aggressive conduct
- deceitful behavior
- destructive behavior
- violation of rules
Aggressive conduct may include:
- intimidating or bullying others
- physically harming people or animals on purpose
- committing rape
- using a weapon
Deceitful behavior may include:
- breaking and entering
Destructive conduct may include arson and other intentional
destruction of property.
Violation of Rules
Violation of rules may include:
- skipping school
- running away from home
- drug and alcohol use
- sexual behavior at a very young age
Boys who have conduct disorder are more likely to display
aggressive and destructive behavior than girls. Girls are more prone to
deceitful and rule-violating behavior.
Additionally, the symptoms of conduct disorder can be mild,
moderate, or severe:
If your child has mild symptoms, it means they display little to
no behavior problems in excess of those required to make the diagnosis. Conduct
problems cause relatively minor harm to others. Common issues include lying,
truancy, and staying out after dark without parental permission.
Your child has moderate symptoms if they display numerous
behavior problems. These conduct problems may have a mild to severe impact on
others. The problems may include vandalism and stealing.
Your child ha severe symptoms if they display behavior problems
in excess of those required to make the diagnosis. These conduct problems cause
considerable harm to others. The problems may include rape, use of a weapon, or
breaking and entering.
What Causes Conduct Disorder?
Genetic and environmental factors may contribute to the
development of conduct disorder.
Damage to the frontal lobe of the brain has been linked to
conduct disorder. The frontal lobe is the part of your brain that regulates important
cognitive skills, such as problem-solving, memory, and emotional expression.
It’s also home to your personality. The frontal lobe in a person with conduct
disorder may not work properly, which can cause, among other things:
- a lack of impulse control
- a reduced ability to plan future actions
- a decreased ability to learn from past negative
The impairment of the frontal lobe may be genetic, or inherited,
or it may be caused by brain damage due to an injury. A child may also inherit
personality traits that are commonly seen in conduct disorder.
The environmental factors that are associated with conduct
- child abuse
- a dysfunctional family
- parents who abuse drugs or alcohol
Who Is at Risk for Conduct Disorder?
The following factors may increase your child’s risk of
developing conduct disorder:
- being male
- living in an urban environment
- living in poverty
- having a family history of conduct disorder
- having a family history of mental illness
- having other psychiatric disorders
- having parents who abuse drugs or alcohol
- having a dysfunctional home environment
- having a history of experiencing traumatic
- being abused or neglected
How Is Conduct Disorder Diagnosed?
If your child is showing signs of conduct disorder, they should
be evaluated by a mental health professional. They’ll ask you and your child
questions about their behavioral patterns to make a diagnosis. For a conduct
disorder diagnosis to be made, your child must have a pattern of displaying at
least three behaviors that are common to conduct disorder. Your child must also
have shown at least one of the behaviors within the past six months. The
behavioral problems must also significantly impair your child socially or at
How Is Conduct Disorder Treated?
Children with conduct disorder who are living in abusive homes
may be placed into other homes. If abuse isn’t present, your child’s mental
healthcare provider will use behavior therapy or talk therapy to help your
child learn how to express or control their emotions appropriately. The mental
healthcare provider will also teach you how to manage your child’s behavior. If
your child has another mental health disorder, such as depression or ADHD, the
mental healthcare provider may prescribe medications to treat that condition as
Since it takes time to establish new attitudes and behavior
patterns, children with conduct disorder usually require long-term treatment.
However, early treatment may slow the progression of the disorder or reduce the
severity of negative behaviors.
What Is the Long-Term Outlook for Children with
The long-term outlook for conduct disorder depends on the
severity and frequency of your child’s behavioral and emotional problems. Children
who continuously display extremely aggressive, deceitful, or destructive
behavior tend to have a poorer outlook. The outlook is also worse if other
mental illnesses are present. However, getting a prompt diagnosis and receiving
comprehensive treatment can significantly improve your child’s outlook. Once
treatment is received for conduct disorder and any other underlying conditions,
your child has a much better chance of considerable improvement and hope for a
more successful future.
Without treatment, your child is likely to have ongoing problems.
They may be unable to adapt to the demands of adulthood, which can cause them
to have problems with relationships and holding a job. They’re also at an
increased risk for substance abuse and problems with law enforcement. Your
child may even develop a personality disorder, such as antisocial personality disorder,
when they reach adulthood. This is why early diagnosis and treatment are
critical. The earlier your child receives treatment, the better their outlook
for the future will be.