Conduct Disorder

Often viewed by other children, adults and society as “bad” or “delinquent,” children and adolescents with conduct disorder have a hard time following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. So how do you know if a child is mentally ill or just acting out? Read on to find out.

Definition of Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder, a behavior disorder, is a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in children and adolescents in which the rights of others or basic social rules are violated in a variety of settings including home, school, and in social situations.[1]

Signs & Symptoms of Conduct Disorder

Children with conduct disorder tend to be impulsive, hard to control and not concerned about other people’s feelings due to difficulty feeling and expressing empathy or remorse and reading social cues. These youth often misinterpret the actions of others as being hostile or aggressive and respond by escalating the situation into conflict. Symptoms may include the following:[1,2]

  • Breaking rules without obvious reason
  • Cruel or aggressive behavior toward people or animals (for example: bullying, fighting, using dangerous weapons, forcing sexual activity and stealing)
  • Failure to attend school
  • Heavy drinking and/or heavy illicit drug use
  • Intentionally setting fires
  • Lying to get a favor or avoid things they have to do
  • Running away
  • Vandalizing or destroying property

Causes of Conduct Disorder

Many factors may contribute to a child developing conduct disorder, including brain damage, child abuse or neglect, drug addiction or alcoholism in the parents, genetic vulnerability, school failure, poverty, and traumatic life experiences. The disorder is more common in boys.[3,4]

Effects of Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is often associated with attention-deficit disorder and can be an early sign of depression or bipolar disorder. Conduct disorder involves long-term behavioral problems, such as the following:[2,3]

  • Defiant or impulsive behavior
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Criminal activity

Treatments for Conduct Disorder

Since teaching children how to focus on establishing new attitudes and behaviors is the base of treatment for conduct disorder, it can take time. Behavior therapy and psychotherapy can help children learn how to express and control anger. Medication may also help with attention issues, impulse problems and depression that often accompany conduct disorder.[4]

Take note that many “behavioral modification” schools, “wilderness programs,” and “boot camps” may use a form of “attack therapy” or “confrontation,” which have not been supported by research and can be harmful. Research suggests that treating children at home with their families, is more effective. However, in cases of abuse, the child may need to be removed from the family and placed in a less chaotic home.


  1. Mental Health America. Conduct Disorder. Retrieved February 8, 2013, from
  2. MedlinePlus. Conduct disorder. Retrieved February 8, 2013, from
  3. US National Library of Medicine. Conduct disorder. Retrieved February 8, 2013, from
  4. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Retrieved February 8, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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