All kids will struggle with managing their behavior at some point in their childhood. But as they grow, they learn to build friendships and better understand how their behaviors affect others. If a child seems to lack an understanding of negative behavior and seemingly has no concern for the feelings of others, this could indicate a problem.

Conduct disorder is a behavioral disorder that occurs when children engage in antisocial behaviors, have trouble following rules, and struggle to show empathy to others. They may also threaten the safety of others or themselves. Conduct disorder typically emerges in children under the age of 16, but can be diagnosed in adults as well.

Prevalence and Causes

Not all children with significant antisocial behavioral issues will be evaluated by a mental health professional. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate how prevalent the disorder is among children and teens. Boys are more likely to receive a diagnosis than girls.

Neuropsychologists and other researchers believe that the development of conduct disorder is somehow related to impairment in the frontal lobe of the brain, which can keep children and teens from learning from negative experiences and adjusting their behaviors.

Children diagnosed with conduct disorder may have a history of the following:

  • abuse
  • poverty
  • parental substance abuse
  • other mental health problems
  • family conflict or violence
  • brain damage
  • other trauma

Researchers also believe that genetics may play a role in the development of conduct disorder.

Signs of Conduct Disorder 

Signs of conduct disorder typically involve behaviors in the form of aggression, destruction of property, dishonesty, and disregard for rules. Common signs of conduct disorder can include:

  • initiating physical fights
  • bullying or threatening others
  • using a weapon to cause harm
  • physical cruelty to humans or animals
  • stealing
  • breaking into someone else’s property
  • forcing someone into sexual activity
  • setting fire to cause damage
  • destruction of property
  • staying out late without permission
  • running away from home
  • missing school frequently

 Some individuals with conduct disorder also will exhibit a lack of positive social engagement and emotional involvement. They might demonstrate the following:

  • no remorse for poor behavior
  • lack of concern about behavioral consequences
  • lack of empathy for others
  • lack of concern about performance at school or work
  • lack of emotional expression

Diagnosis

Children, adolescents, and adults can be diagnosed with conduct disorder if they exhibit several of the signs listed above. Signs must have been present for at least a year in order to receive a diagnosis.

When diagnosing children or teens, a psychiatrist may want to observe the child’s behavior and also talk with their parents and teachers.

When a psychiatrist or mental health professional evaluates an individual for conduct disorder, they will also want to rule out any other diagnoses or assess for co-occurring mental health disorders. Because many of the signs of conduct disorder are similar to antisocial personality disorder, an adult cannot be diagnosed with both conditions. There’s not much difference between the two disorders, but conduct disorder is typically diagnosed in children, so if an adult meets the criteria for both disorders, then they would be given the antisocial personality disorder diagnoses instead of conduct disorder. It’s really a matter of age rather than differences between the diagnoses.

However, children and adults who receive a diagnosis of conduct disorder may also have co-occurring diagnoses, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression, or bipolar disorder. They may also have learning difficulties.

It can also be difficult to distinguish between conduct disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Though many of the symptoms may appear similar, there are several key differences between the two diagnoses. One is that people with conduct disorder have trouble with social interaction because of deficits in social learning, whereas people with autism have trouble socializing due to developmental challenges. People with autism also tend to present with inward challenges, such as obsessions and compulsions, whereas people with conduct disorder express outward behaviors such as criminal activity or violence.

Article continues below

Concerned about ADHD?

One of our 3-minute Self-Assessments may help identify if you or your child could benefit from further diagnosis and treatment.

Adult ADHD Quiz Child ADHD Quiz

Conduct Disorder Treatment

Treatment for conduct disorder will vary depending on the age of the individual and their symptoms. Conduct disorder can sometimes can lead to depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental health and behavioral challenges later in life, so early evaluation and treatment is key for children.

Treatment can prove difficult because children are often uncooperative and distrustful of adults. It is important for parents and other significant adults in the child or teen’s life to remain patient and committed to working with them and building a team of support for them.

Treatment for conduct disorder typically involves both individual and family therapy, and the primary goal of treatment is to help the individual improve interactions with others.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is sometimes used to help an individual manage impulsive behaviors and deal with stress with positive coping strategies.

Family therapy can help family members communicate more effectively and also help parents learn strategies for de-escalating conflict with their child. Family therapy can also help reduce risk factors that lead to antisocial behaviors in the child.

Group therapy with the child or teen’s peers is also sometimes used to help them develop interpersonal skills and behaviors that foster empathy.

School support is another important part of treatment for conduct disorder. For children and teens in school, a team of people will be assembled to help your child with conduct disorder. This team typically involves school counselors, school psychologists, social workers, administrators, and others. If your child is diagnosed with conduct disorder, they may qualify for an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or a 504 plan, which can provide them with the needed accommodations to ensure their academic and social success at school.

Medication is not typically used to treat conduct disorder, but individuals with co-occurring disorders may be prescribed medication to treat symptoms of other conditions. Medication is typically prescribed if the child has attention issues or mood-related symptoms like depression.

Prevention of Conduct Disorder

Researchers believe that positive parenting as well as providing a safe and supportive environment for a child can reduce the risk of conduct disorder. Reducing the risk factors that can increase the possibility of conduct disorder, such as poverty and abuse, is likely to ensure the best outcome for the child. If a child whom you know or suspect is being neglected or abused, you can report the abuse to the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453).

If you think that your child may have conduct disorder, do not hesitate to reach out to their doctor, a school counselor, or a mental health professional. Early diagnosis and treatment is vital to preventing additional mental health and behavioral challenges. With the right support, children and teens can begin to engage more positively with their peers and adults and learn to correct harmful behaviors.

Article Sources
Last Updated: Oct 31, 2018