Signs, Symptoms, & Causes of Conduct Disorder

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from conduct disorder, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn about conduct disorder

Conduct disorder is disruptive behavior disorder that develops in childhood and is characterized by repeated behaviors that violate the personal or property rights of others, as well as the basic expectations of society. Children and adolescents with conduct disorder will engage in disruptive behaviors in a variety of settings, including school, home, and social situations. Additionally, these behaviors will cause significant impairment in all aspects of the child’s life, including interaction with peers, family life, and academic life. Not only do these behaviors negatively impact the child or teen, but they also have an effect upon family members and others around them.  With treatment, children and adolescents diagnosed with Conduct disorder can  learn the proper coping skills to avoid these disruptive, negative behaviors.


Conduct disorder statistics

Studies have shown that conduct disorder affects 1% -4% of children ages 9-17 in the United States alone. The disorder is more prominently diagnosed in boys and tends to be more prevalent in urban areas as opposed to rural areas. It has been estimated that approximately 40% of children diagnosed with conduct disorder will grow up to have characteristics of and/or diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder in children and teens

The development of conduct disorder is said to be the result of a number of different factors working together including genetic, physical, and environmental components. Some examples of these factors may include:

Genetic: Personality traits are commonly inherited from family members, so the components that make up conduct disorder may have genetic influences. Additionally, children with parents who have a mental health disorder are at a higher risk for developing conduct disorder.

Physical: Research has linked impairments in the frontal lobe of the brain with the development of conduct disorder. This may be due to the fact that the frontal lobe is responsible for regulating emotions and personality. For those with conduct disorder, the frontal lobe may not be working properly, causing reduced ability to plan future actions, which leads to a lack of impulse control, and reduced ability to learn from past negative experiences.

Environmental: Parental behavior is argued to be one of the biggest factors as to whether or not a child will develop symptoms of conduct disorder. Children who are raised without any form of appropriate discipline or whose parents tend to be absent frequently can have an impact on child behaviors.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Lack of appropriate methods of discipline
  • Exposure to violence
  • Having been subjected to physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse
  • Living in a city as a opposed to a rural area
  • Presence of other mental health disorders
  • Poor nutrition
  • Living in poverty
  • Maternal psychopathology
  • Poor parenting / lack of parental involvement
  • Being separated from parents without proper alternative caregiver

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder in children and teens

The behaviors of conduct disorder fall into four main categories: aggressive conduct that causes or threatens harm to others or animals, non-aggressive conduct that causes property loss or damage, deceitfulness or theft, and serious violation of the rules. Some examples of signs and symptoms that may be indicative that a child is suffering from conduct disorder can include:

Aggression to people and animals:

  • Aggression toward animals
  • Bullying, threatening, or intimidating others
  • Often instigates physical fights
  • Has used a weapon that can cause serious physical harm to others
  • Forcing someone into sexual activity against the person’s will
  • Has stolen while confronting a victim

Destruction of property:

  • Deliberately engaged in fire setting with intention of causing serious damage
  • Deliberately destroyed the property of others

Deceitfulness or theft:

  • Breaking into someone’s house, car, or building
  • Lies often
  • Steals items
  • Forgery

Serious violation of the rules:

  • Often stays out at night despite parental rules
  • Skipping school
  • Running away from home
  • Sexual behavior a very young age


Effects of conduct disorder in children and teens

If not properly treated the effects of conduct disorder can range from mild to severe. Some such effects can include:

  • Ongoing risky sexual behaviors
  • Delinquency
  • School suspension or expulsion
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Chronic substance abuse
  • Arrests
  • Engagement in reckless behavior
  • Serving jail time
  • Future onset of antisocial personality disorder

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

Children with conduct disorder can also be suffering with another mental health disorder, including:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Other personality disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Specific learning disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance abuse and addiction