Conduct Disorder

Written by Rose Kivi | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD on July 25, 2012


Conduct disorder is a group of behavioral and emotional problems that usually begins during childhood or teenage years. People with the disorder have a long-term and continual pattern of behavior that violates the rights of others or goes against what is deemed normal by society for their age group.

Types of Conduct Disorder

There are three types of conduct disorder. They are labeled according to the age at which the symptoms first occur. The three types of conduct disorder are:

  • childhood onset (signs of conduct disorder appear before 10 years old)
  • adolescent onset (signs of conduct disorder appear during the teenage years)
  • unspecified onset (the age that conduct disorder first occurs is unknown)

What Causes Conduct Disorder?

Genetic and environmental factors may contribute to the development of conduct disorder.

Genetic Causes

Impairment in the frontal lobe of the brain has been linked to conduct disorder. The frontal lobe of your brain regulates emotions and is home to your personality. The frontal lobe in a person with conduct disorder may not work properly, causing, among other things:

  • a reduced ability to plan future actions
  • a lack of impulse control
  • a reduced ability to learn from past negative experiences

The impairment of the frontal lobe may be genetic (inherited) or may be caused by damage to the brain from injuries. A child may also inherit personality traits that are commonly seen in conduct disorder.

Environmental Factors

The environmental factors that may be linked to conduct disorder include:

  • child abuse
  • dysfunctional family
  • parents who abuse drugs or alcohol
  • poverty

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 do not take other people’s feelings into consideration. If your child has conduct disorder, he or she may persistently display one or more of the following behaviors:

  • aggressive conduct
  • deceitful behavior
  • destructive conduct
  • violation of rules

Aggressive Conduct

Aggressive conduct may include:

  • intimidating or bullying others
  • purposely physically harming people or animals
  • committing rape
  • using a weapon

Deceitful Behavior

Deceitful behavior may include:

  • lying
  • breaking and entering
  • stealing
  • forgery

Destructive Conduct

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

Difference Between Boys and Girls

Boys who have conduct disorder are more likely to display aggressive and destructive behavior than girls are. Girls are more prone to deceitful and rule-violating behavior.

Understanding Your Child

If your child has conduct disorder, he or she may appear tough and confident. In reality, children who have conduct disorder are insecure and inaccurately believe that people are being aggressive or threatening toward them.

Who Is at Risk for Conduct Disorder?

The following factors may increase a person’s risk of developing conduct disorder:

  • being male (conduct disorder is more common in males than females)
  • living in a city (conduct disorder is more prevalent in children who live in cities than those who live in rural areas)
  • having a family history of conduct disorder
  • having other psychiatric disorders
  • having parents who have mental illness
  • having parents who abuse drugs or alcohol
  • being abused or neglected
  • having a dysfunctional home environment
  • having a history of traumatic events
  • living in poverty

How Is Conduct Disorder Diagnosed?

Your child’s mental healthcare provider will ask you and your child questions 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 have shown at least one of the behaviors within the past six months. In addition, the behavioral problems must significantly impair your child socially or at school (or at work for adults).

How Is Conduct Disorder Treated?

Children with conduct disorder who are living in abusive homes may be placed into other homes. If abuse is not present, your child’s mental healthcare provider may use behavioral modification therapy or talk therapy to help teach him or her ways to adapt to feelings. The mental healthcare provider will also teach you how to manage your child’s behavior. If your child has other disorders such as depression or ADHD—both of which commonly occur with conduct disorder—the mental healthcare provider may prescribe medications to treat those conditions as well.

Preventing Conduct Disorder

Early detection and treatment for childhood risk factors and behaviors may prevent conduct disorder from developing or reduce the severity of its symptoms.

Long-Term Outlook

The long-term outlook for conduct disorder depends on the severity and frequency of the symptoms. The more severe and frequent the symptoms are, the poorer the outlook. In addition, the outlook is worse if other mental illnesses are also present. Children who have conduct disorder may develop depression or bipolar disorder, or become suicidal. They also may develop personality disorders when they are adults—most commonly antisocial disorder.

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Show Sources

  • Conduct disorder: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. Retrieved May 7, 2012, from
  • DSM-IV-TR: Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition, text revision. (2000). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  • FCS 2136/HE136: Conduct Disorder. (n.d.). EDIS - Electronic Data Information Source - UF/IFAS Extension. Retrieved May 7, 2012, from
  • Holmes, S., Slaughter, J., & Kashani, J. (2001). Risk factors in childhood that lead to the development of conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry Spring, 31(3), 183-193.

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