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 toward them.

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.

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

Aggressive conduct may include:

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

Deceitful Behavior

Deceitful behavior may include:

  • lying
  • breaking and entering
  • stealing
  • forgery

Destructive Behavior

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.

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

Genetic Causes

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 experiences

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.

Environmental Factors

The environmental factors that are associated with conduct disorder include:

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

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 events
  • being abused or neglected

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 school.

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 well.

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.

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.