The Warning Signs of Conduct Disorder in Children

Conduct disorder is a mental health condition.
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Conduct disorder in children goes beyond bad behavior. It is a diagnosable mental health condition that is characterized by patterns of violating societal norms and the rights of others. It's estimated that between 1% and 4% of 9- to 17-year-olds have conduct disorder. It is more prevalent in boys than in girls.

It's important for kids with conduct disorder to get professional treatment. Recognizing the early warning signs can help you take appropriate action.

Signs of Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder extends beyond normal teenage rebellion. It involves serious behavior problems that are likely to raise alarm among teachers, parents, peers, and other adults. In order to qualify for a diagnosis of conduct disorder, children must exhibit at least three of these symptoms in the past year and at least one in the past six months:

Aggression Toward People and Animals

  • Bullying, threatening, or intimidating others
  • Initiating physical fights
  • Using a weapon that could cause serious harm
  • Physical cruelty to people
  • Physical cruelty to animals
  • Stealing while confronting a victim
  • Forced sexual activity

Property Destruction

  • Deliberate fire setting
  • Other destruction of property

Deceptiveness or Theft

  • Breaking or entering a house, car, or building
  • Lying for personal gain
  • Stealing without confronting the victim (such as shoplifting)

Serious Rule Violation

  • Staying out at night before the age of 13 years
  • Running away from home overnight at least twice
  • Truancy beginning before the age of 13

Types of Conduct Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), which is used to diagnose mental illnesses, distinguishes between conduct disorder with or without limited prosocial emotions.

Individuals with limited prosocial emotions are characterized by callousness and a lack of remorse and empathy. They are unconcerned about their performance at school or work and have shallow emotions. When present, their emotional expressions may be used to manipulate others.

How Conduct Disorder Impairs Functioning

Conduct disorder isn't just a challenge for caregivers—it actually impairs a child's ability to function. Children with conduct disorder misbehave so much that their education is affected. They usually receive frequent disciplinary action from teachers and may be truant. Children with conduct disorder may be at a higher risk of failure or dropping out of school. 

Children with conduct disorder also have poor relationships. They struggle to develop and maintain friendships. Their relationships with family members usually suffer due to the severity of their behavior.

Adolescents with conduct disorder are also more likely to have legal problems. Substance abuse, violent behavior, and a disregard for the law may lead to incarceration.

They may also be at a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections. Studies show teens with conduct disorder are more likely to have multiple sexual partners and they are less likely to use protection.

Potential Causes of Conduct Disorder

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why some children develop conduct disorder. There are likely a variety of biological, psychological and social factors involved. Quite often, those factors overlap. Some that may play a role include:

  • Brain abnormalities: Neuroimaging studies suggest children with conduct disorder may have some functional abnormalities in certain regions of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex (which affects judgment) and the limbic system (which affects emotional responses) may be impaired.
  • Genetics: Studies suggest anti-social behavior is about 50% inheritable. Researchers aren’t sure what genetic components contribute to conduct disorder.
  • Social issues: Poverty, disorganized neighborhoods, poor schools, family breakdown, parental psychopathology, harsh parenting, and inadequate supervision are all strongly correlated with conduct disorder.
  • Cognitive deficits: Low IQ, poor verbal skills, and impairment in executive functioning may make children more vulnerable to conduct disorder.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder as a Precursor to Conduct Disorder

Some children with oppositional defiant disorder go on to develop conduct disorder. Oppositional defiant disorder is a behavior disorder that involves a pattern of angry or irritable mood, argumentativeness and defiance, and vindictiveness. Without effective treatment, oppositional defiant disorder may progress into conduct disorder as a child ages.

Common Comorbid Conditions

Many children with conduct disorder have other mental health issues or cognitive impairments. These can include:

  • ADHD
  • Self-harm
  • Substance misuse
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Learning disability

Children with conduct disorder may be more likely to develop antisocial personality disorder later in life.


Conduct disorder in children can be diagnosed by a mental health professional or a physician. Often, a diagnosis is made after attempts to remedy behavior problems at school and at home are ineffective.

A professional may interview the child, review records, and request that parents and teachers complete questionnaires about the child’s behavior. Psychological testing and other assessment tools may be used to evaluate a child for conduct disorder.


Treatment for conduct disorder depends on several factors, such as a child’s age and the severity of behavior problems. The most common treatment methods include:

  • Psychotherapy: Individual therapy may be helpful when a child could benefit from learning new skills, such as anger management and impulse control.
  • Parent training: Treatment often involves caregivers and parents. Parents may be taught behavior management strategies and techniques to increase safety in the home if a child is aggressive or violent.
  • Family therapy: Parents, siblings, and other family members may be invited to attend therapy with the child. Sometimes, improving the relationship between parents and a child may improve family interactions.
  • Residential placement: In cases where a child or adolescent's behavior has become out of control, a residential placement may be necessary to keep everyone safe. A therapeutic environment may address substance abuse issues, sexualized behavior, or violence.
  • Medication: There isn’t a medication that specifically treats conduct disorder. But sometimes doctors may prescribe medication to treat the disorder's symptoms or to address other underlying mental illness.

Early intervention is the key to getting the most effective treatment, so it’s important for parents, educators, and physicians to be aware of the signs of conduct disorder in children so that appropriate referrals and interventions can be put into place.

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