Conduct Disorder Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

Conduct disorder is a type of behavioral disorder that is only diagnosed in children under the age of 18. It is characterized by a pattern of aggressive behavior, and serious and grave violations of rules and societal norms. Changes in behavior should be present at home, in school, and with peers.

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  1. Overview
  2. Symptoms
  3. Potential Causes
  4. Treatment, Prevention and Relief
  5. When to Seek Further Consultation
  6. References

What Is Conduct Disorder?


Conduct disorder is a behavioral disorder only diagnosed in children. It is characterized by behaviors that significantly violate social norms. It is not uncommon for conduct disorder to manifest as violence toward peers, adults, and animals; breaking house or school rules like staying out all night or skipping school; and lying, stealing, or damaging property on purpose. Conduct-disorder should not be confused with social or peer pressure. Therapists or counselors can help parents distinguish between poor behaviors stemming from conduct disorder as opposed to other causes.

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Conduct Disorder Symptoms

Main symptoms

Conduct disorder is diagnosed by a behavioral pattern. The behaviors that allow diagnosis of conduct disorder are also the symptoms of the disorder. To diagnose conduct disorder, an individual must routinely engage in behaviors that violate the rights of others and involve conflict with societal norms or authority figures. These behaviors are caused by difficulties with self-control of emotions, impulse-control, and control of destructive impulses and often can lead to poor performance in social, familial, and academic situations, a higher chance of substance abuse, and a higher change on incarceration.

Conduct disorder must involve a consistent pattern of behavior that takes place over the course of between six and fifteen months and must involve a series of the following behaviors.

  • Bullying: Bullying involves teasing, threatening or intimidating peers or other individuals.
  • Physical fights: initiating physical fights frequently and impulsively from a sense of anger or enjoyment of fighting
  • Use of a weapon: carrying or use of a weapon that can harm or kill others. It is not necessary for the weapon to have caused damage.
  • Cruelty towards others: engaging in activity that is meant to cause physical, psychological, or emotional harm without reason
  • Cruelty towards animals: torturing or harming animals for pleasure, gratification, or satisfaction
  • Stealing while confronting (mugging): forcing others to relinquish property with threat of violence
  • Forced or coerced sexual activity (rape): physical, verbal, or emotional coercion into unwanted sexual activity

Property destruction

Aggression and destruction of personal property is also a characteristic of conduct disorders.

  • Fires: Setting fires with the purpose of destroying property is a characteristic of conduct disorder.
  • Deliberately destroying others’ property: Destroying the property of others intentionally and routinely is also a characteristic of conduct disorders.

Theft, deceit, or rule violation

Theft or violation of social norms is also common among individuals with conduct disorder. These behaviors include breaking into someone’s property, lying to obtain goods, stealing expensive items, or disappearing for extended amounts of time.

  • Breaking into cars or houses: Breaking into other people’s houses or cars to steal or to transgress is common.
  • Lying to avoid obligations or garner favors: Individuals may commonly lie about their obligations or identity to garner privileges or avoid responsibility.
  • Stealing valuable items: Individuals with conduct disorder may steal expensive items from peers even without the need for them or without an intent to resell.
  • Truancy from school or running away: It is common for individuals with conduct disorder to run away from home or from school for extended periods of time.

Conduct Disorder Causes

Conduct disorder does not have a single discernible cause. Conduct disorder most frequently affects male children before the age of puberty but can also develop after puberty in which case males and females are affected equally. While there are no single causes of conduct disorder, there are some experiences that are more common among children that are diagnosed with conduct disorder which include child abuse, family conflicts, and poverty or economic instability.

Traumatic circumstances

Conditions that lead to or aggravate stress in the household may cause children predisposed to develop conduct disorder to begin to exhibit symptoms. In many cases, these experiences are linked to exposure to violence or trauma in early childhood and financial stability within the family in early childhood.

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual child abuse
  • Family conflicts or domestic violence
  • Poverty
  • Housing insecurity
  • Neighborhood violence

Conduct Disorder Symptom Checker

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Treatment Options, Relief, and Prevention for Conduct Disorder


Conduct disorder is treated with therapy and, in some cases, medications. It is a chronic disorder that often exists throughout the lifetime of the child, but in some cases can be managed through techniques developed in therapy and medications that are tailored towards the child’s needs. Often treatment or therapy must be started early in a child’s life and the course of their illness to help them develop proper care. Any abuse or exposure to violence should be stopped, and even after stopping violence, it may help to relocate to a new space. Notably, behavioral camps, boot camps, and sleepaway schools have no evidence basis and are not shown to reduce negative behaviors. It is very important for children to complete therapy as those that are incompletely treated may go on to develop antisocial personality disorder.


Because conduct disorder is multifactorial and likely caused by a mixture of the child’s own prior disposition in combination with his or her lived experience, avoiding conduct disorder is challenging. The experiences that often predispose toward conduct disorder (e.g., trauma, domestic violence, exposure to violence, poverty) are not states that parents bring their children into volitionally. While avoiding these circumstances is useful, it is frequently difficult.

When to Seek Further Consultation for Conduct Disorder

If you suspect that your child has conduct disorder, it is important to seek consultation because treatment of conduct disorder is often more successful early in the course of disease and among younger children and conduct disorder can develop into antisocial personality disorder if untreated.