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Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is a mental health issue that causes aggressive and violent behaviors in children and teens. It’s crucial to seek treatment to avoid further problems with the law and personality disorders. With proper treatment and support, children with conduct disorder can lead healthy and productive lives as adults.

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What Is Conduct Disorder?

Conduct disorder is a serious impulse control disorder that affects the emotions and behavior of children and teens. Adolescents with conduct disorder typically display disruptive, aggressive, and sometimes violent behavior that can continue into adulthood.

While it’s normal for children and teens to have episodes of rebellious behavior or rule-breaking, the behavior caused by conduct disorder is far more serious. Children with conduct disorder will often engage in actions that violate others’ rights, destroy property, and disrupt school and home life.

While conduct disorder can have an early onset before age 10, the condition typically develops between ages 10 to 19.

Conduct Disorder VS Autism Spectrum Disorder

Although conduct disorder and autism spectrum disorder may share some traits, the two conditions are very different from one another.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave.

Conduct disorder, on the other hand, is an impulse control disorder that features behavioral and emotional problems characterized by a disregard for others. In some cases, children with autism may have co-occurring conduct disorder and vice versa.

What Does Conduct Disorder Turn Into in Adults?

If symptoms of conduct disorder persist into adulthood, the individual is almost always diagnosed with a personality disorder.

In many cases, adults with adolescent-onset conduct disorder symptoms will be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), as the two conditions have virtually the same symptoms.

80% of people with this antisocial personality disorder will start to show symptoms by 11 years of age. However, not all children with conduct disorder will receive an ASPD diagnosis, depending on the child’s upbringing and treatment plan.

Other Impulse Control Disorders

Conduct disorder is one of five impulse control disorders described in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition). Impulse control disorders are a group of disorders defined by urges and behaviors that are excessive and/or harmful to oneself or others.

Impulse control disorders can cause significant impairment in social and occupational functioning and lead to many legal and financial difficulties.

Conduct disorder is included in the spectrum of disruptive behavioral disorders. Disruptive behavioral disorders also include oppositional defiant disorder. In some cases, oppositional defiant disorder can lead to conduct disorder.

The five impulse control disorders currently recognized in the DSM-5 include:

Symptoms of Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder causes antisocial behavior, meaning behaviors that violate social norms. These conduct problems arise in adolescence and are often aggressive and violent.

Common symptoms of conduct disorder include:

  • Aggressive behavior problems towards people or animals, often violating the rights of others
  • Getting into verbal and physical fights
  • Consistently skipping school (truancy), running away, playing harmful pranks, or being sexually active at a very young age
  • Repeated lying, shoplifting, or breaking into homes or cars to steal
  • Vandalism or destruction of property
  • Arson or fire-setting
  • Consistent deceitfulness and/or stealing
  • Engaging in substance use at a young age
  • Forcing another person into unwanted sexual activity
  • Serious violations of rules
  • Blaming others for their behavior

Conduct Disorder and Addiction

Substance use disorder and conduct disorder often co-occur. Young people with conduct disorder frequently engage in substance abuse, especially with alcohol.

Children and teens with conduct disorder are more likely to abuse substances to defy rules and cope with symptoms of co-occurring mental illnesses.

Conduct Disorder Causes and Risk Factors

Conduct disorder can lead to potentially dangerous outcomes if not addressed and treated. Therefore, understanding the causes and risk factors of developing conduct disorder can lead to faster diagnosis and treatment.

What Causes Conduct Disorder?

Mental health professionals have not identified the exact cause of conduct disorder. However, it is believed that a complex combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors may cause conduct disorder.

Common genetic and biological factors associated with conduct disorder include:

  • High levels of testosterone, which contributes to aggression
  • Seizures, traumatic brain injury, and neurological damage
  • Family history of impulse control disorders, addiction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders, schizophrenia, or antisocial personality disorder

Common environmental factors associated with conduct disorder include:

  • Parents who engage in substance abuse and antisocial behaviors such as child abuse, stealing, lying, and hurting others
  • Chaotic, neglectful, and abusive upbringing
  • Living in low social and economic communities affected by economic and social stress

Risk Factors for Conduct Disorder

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 3% of children and teens in the United States have conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is twice as common among males than females and tends to be more common among children with ADHD.

Common risk factors for developing conduct disorder include:

  • Being male
  • Family history of antisocial behavior, anger management issues, addiction, and mental health conditions
  • Being abused as a child
  • Having common comorbid disorders such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and learning disabilities

Diagnosis of Conduct Disorder

To receive a conduct disorder diagnosis, a mental health professional must evaluate the child and their parents or caregivers. A therapist or psychologist will interview the child and members of their family to get a clear picture of their symptoms and risk factors.

Using the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria, the provider will rule out other mental health conditions and determine if the patient meets the requirements for a conduct disorder diagnosis. Once a diagnosis is obtained, your provider will recommend a treatment plan.

Treatment for Conduct Disorder

Treatment options for conduct disorder often include psychotherapy and, in some cases, medications to address symptoms of co-occurring disorders.

Psychotherapy for conduct disorder often includes one-on-one sessions with the child and family therapy to address the child’s behavior.

Early intervention and therapies that involve the whole family are the best way to prevent adolescents from getting into serious trouble that follows them into adulthood.

Common types of therapy used to treat conduct disorder include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps patients identify and address problematic behaviors
  • Parent management training helps by training parents to alter their child’s behavior in the home
  • Multisystemic therapy helps parents and caregivers institute positive coping activities that increase accountability and problem-solving for all family members

Long-Term Effects of Untreated Conduct Disorder

If conduct disorder is left untreated, aggressive and rule-breaking behavior will likely escalate. Should their symptoms persist into adulthood, patients with conduct disorder will likely obtain a personality disorder diagnosis like antisocial personality disorder.

The risk of harming other people and property increases as their behavior worsens. Many untreated children with conduct disorder will face serious legal consequences, including arrests, convictions, and jail or prison time.

Find Support and Treatment for Conduct Disorder

Raising a child with conduct disorder can be incredibly challenging, causing you to feel powerless and alone as you try to manage their disruptive behavior. However, some adolescent psychiatry experts are ready to help you find solutions.

You can start by speaking with your doctor about your child’s symptoms and learning what treatment options are available to you and your family.

If you’re unsure what providers are in your area, use SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to get a list of local mental health providers.

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FAQs About Conduct Disorder

What are the signs of conduct disorder in a child?

Common signs of conduct disorder in children and teens include:

  • Violence or aggression toward people and animals that violates others’ basic rights
  • Destruction of property
  • Deceiving, lying, and/or stealing
  • Serious violations of rules
  • Frequent lying, shoplifting, or breaking into homes or cars to steal
  • Consistently running away, playing harmful pranks, skipping school, or becoming sexually active at too young of an age

When should I talk to my child’s doctor about conduct disorder?

If your child begins to display behavior that is harmful or dangerous to themselves or other people or animals, it’s time to discuss those actions and behaviors with your child’s doctor.

Rebellious or obstinate behavior is normal for children; harmful and risky behaviors are not. Your doctor can help you determine if other factors or conditions can explain the behavior or if it is indeed a conduct disorder.

How do you talk to someone with conduct disorder?

It’s normal to feel apprehensive or nervous when talking to someone who displays aggressive or unpredictable behavior. However, there are ways to interact with people with conduct disorder to keep you both feeling comfortable.

You can improve your interactions with someone who has conduct disorder by:

  • Learning more about conduct disorders
  • Being clear about your rules and boundaries
  • Give positive attention to good behaviors
  • Uplift their strengths
  • Encourage them to be physically active to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Looking after yourself, too

What is the most effective treatment for conduct disorder?

The most effective treatment for conduct disorder is therapy. It’s recommended that the child with conduct disorder receive one-on-one therapy, typically through cognitive behavioral therapy and family therapy with their caregivers.

Parent management training and multisystemic therapy tend to work best for family therapy. Parent management training works by helping parents or caregivers alter the child’s behavior in the home, and multisystemic therapy works by increasing accountability and problem-solving techniques.

What is the difference between conduct disorder and autism?

Conduct disorder and autism are two different types of conditions. Conduct disorder is an impulse control disorder, and autism is a neurodevelopment disorder, meaning that different issues cause their symptoms.

That said, there is some overlap in symptoms between the two disorders. While children with conduct disorder cannot control their compulsive or aggressive urges, children with autism may struggle with socially acceptable reactions and tolerating certain sensory stimuli that cause violent reactions.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, July 26). Behavior or Conduct Problems in Children. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Conduct Disorder. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2023, May 8).
  3. Conduct Disorder: What it Is, Symptoms & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, August 4).
  4. Hopfer, C., Salomonsen-Sautel, S., Mikulich-Gilbertson, S., Min, S.-J., McQueen, M., Crowley, T., Young, S., Corley, R., Sakai, J., Thurstone, C., Hoffenberg, A., Hartman, C., & Hewitt, J. (2013, May). Conduct Disorder and Initiation of Substance Use: A Prospective Longitudinal Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
  5. Masroor, A., Patel, R. S., Bhimanadham, N. N., Raveendran, S., Ahmad, N., Queeneth, U., Pankaj, A., & Mansuri, Z. (2019, July 5). Conduct Disorder-Related Hospitalization and Substance Use Disorders in American Teens. National Library of Medicine.
  6. Mohan, L., Yilanli, M., & Ray, S. (2023, July 10). Conduct Disorder. StatPearls.
  7. Pardini, D., & Frick, P. J. (2013, February). Multiple Developmental Pathways to Conduct Disorder: Current Conceptualizations and Clinical Implications. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
  8. WebMD. (2022, August 25). Mental Health and Conduct Disorder. WebMD.

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