Conduct Disorder Signs & Symptoms

Not everyone experiences conduct disorder the same way. Understanding the signs, symptoms and effects of conduct disorder is an important step toward recovery for your child.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learning about conduct disorder

Characterized by a persistent and repetitive pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or age-appropriate norms are violated, conduct disorder is a psychological disorder that is diagnosed in childhood or adolescence. The behaviors associated with conduct disorder fall into four main groups, including aggressive conduct that causes or threatens physical harm to others and/or animals, nonaggressive behavior that causes property loss or damage, deceitfulness or theft, and a serious violation of the rules. Those with conduct disorder engage in aggressive and destructive behavior that causes disruptions in all areas of a child’s life, including at home and at school. Furthermore, these children experience clinically significant impairment in their social, academic, or occupational functioning.

Children and adolescents with conduct disorder are often impulsive, hard to control, and have no regard for the feelings of others. And, without proper treatment, these children are more likely to experience interactions with the law, problems among friends and family members, and the development of more serious problems, such as substance abuse concerns or an additional mental health disorder. While this disorder can cause a significant amount of disruption in a person’s life, there are a number of treatment options available that can reduce these destructive behaviors and help an individual lead a healthier, happier life.


Conduct disorder statistics

While conduct disorder is more common among male youth, the prevalence rate of this condition among all young people is said to be around four percent. Experts in the field of mental health agree that treatment of conduct disorder is required early, as it is probable for symptoms of this condition to carry over into adulthood. Lastly, it is believed that individuals more at risk for this illness are young people who reside in urban areas as opposed to rural areas.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder

Researchers believe that the cause of conduct disorder is the result of a combination of genetic vulnerability and environmental factors. When a child who has a predisposition for the development of conduct disorder encounters high-risk environmental factors, his or her chances for developing this disorder greatly increases. These causes are described in more detail below:

Genetic: Children who have a family history of mental illness are going to be more vulnerable to developing mental health conditions, such as conduct disorder, themselves. However, the genetic nature of this disorder is still unclear.

Environmental: A child’s environment has the ability to significantly influence the development of conduct disorder. For example, things such as child abuse, brain damage, school failure, and traumatic life experiences can all put a child at an increased risk for the development of this disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Poverty
  • Exposure to trauma, abuse, and/or neglect
  • Being male
  • Having a personal history of mental illness
  • Family history of conduct disorder or other mental health condition
  • Family history of criminal activity
  • Parental illness
  • Lack of supervision or inconsistent supervision

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder most often appear in childhood, but it is not uncommon for the disorder to develop in early adolescence. When the symptoms of this disorder develop, they tend to start out small and gradually get worse over time. The following are symptoms that may indicate the presence of conduct disorder in your child:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Frequently runs away from home
  • Is physically cruel to animals and/or other people
  • Engaging in sexually assaultive behaviors
  • Stealing
  • Destroys property
  • Is physically violent
  • Bullies, threatens, or intimidates others
  • Lying
  • Being truant from school
  • Deliberately sets fires
  • Uncontrolled acting out
  • Frequent rule or law breaking
  • Instigative behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Burns as a result of fire starting
  • Presence of sexually transmitted diseases or infections due to risky sexual behaviors
  • Injuries as a result of acting out or violent behaviors

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor concentration
  • Inability to make good decisions
  • Below average intellect

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Touchy or easily annoyed
  • Feels anger and resentment
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of guilt or remorse
  • False sense of grandiosity
  • Irritability


Effects of conduct disorder

If left untreated, conduct disorder will mostly likely become even harder to manage and will become increasingly frustrating for the child. The sooner that treatment is started for this disorder, the more likely it is that a child will learn adaptive behaviors that can prevent the development of severe complications. The potential consequences that can occur if proper treatment is not sought includes:

  • Development of another mental illness
  • Legal problems, including incarceration
  • Poor academic performance
  • Impaired occupational functioning
  • Exposure to sexually transmitted diseases or infections
  • Inability to maintain future employment
  • Early onset of sexual behaviors
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Involvement in dangerous behaviors or activities
  • Substance use, abuse, and the potential for addiction
  • Disciplinary action at school, such as being suspended or expelled
  • Serious injuries or death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

It is very common for a child with conduct disorder to also be struggling with a coexisting disorder. The following list includes some of the most common disorders that occur alongside conduct disorder:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Learning disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Communication disorders

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