Causes & Effects of Conduct Disorder

Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of conduct disorder and get help for your child, teen, or young adult.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn about conduct disorder

Conduct disorder is a psychological disorder characterized by a pattern of disruptive and violent behaviors that is diagnosed in childhood or adolescents. While it is not uncommon for children or teens to have behavior-related problems at some point during their development, it is when their behavior violates the rights of others, goes against societal norms, or disrupts daily life that it is considered to be possibly symptomatic of conduct disorder.

The behavior associated with conduct disorder is long-lasting and leads to disruptions in all areas of a child’s life. Additionally, these behaviors occur frequently and are distressingly consistent across time, settings, and families. Furthermore, children with conduct disorder function poorly across all settings. If not properly treated, the consequences of conduct disorder can leave a child struggling with emotional difficulties, have difficulties with the law, or even fail academically. However, there are effective treatment options available for conduct disorder that can reduce symptoms and minimize the potential lasting effects for those struggling with this mental illness.


Conduct disorder statistics

It is estimated that 2-16% of children have conduct disorder in the United States. It is one of the most prevalent categories of mental health disorders in children in the United States. Additionally, conduct disorder is much more common in boys than in girls, and tends to occur most often in late childhood or early adolescence. It is estimated that it occurs in about 9% of males and 2% of females.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder

Just like many other mental health disorders, it is still not known what exactly causes conduct disorder, but it is commonly believed to be a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychosocial factors. Some of the most common explanations include the following:

Genetic: Many children and adolescents have family members who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. This suggests that a vulnerability to developing conduct disorder may be, at least in some way, inherited.

Physical:  Some studies suggest that defects or injuries to certain areas of the brain can lead to the development of conduct disorder. Additionally, multiple neuroimaging studies have observed functional and structural differences in the brain of those with conduct disorder. When the neural circuits in these regions do not work properly, conduct disorder symptoms may arise.

Environmental: Factors such as growing up in a dysfunctional family, being abused as a child, as well as other environmental factors has been known to contribute to the development of conduct disorder. Additionally, other factors such as inconsistent parenting, being from a large family, having a caregiver with a criminal history, being exposed to trauma, and being rejected by peers can also contribute to an eventual diagnosis of conduct disorder. 

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Family history of conduct disorder or other mental illness
  • Not being accepted by peers
  • Preexisting mental illness
  • Family history of criminal activity
  • Lack of guilt and remorse
  • Deficits in cognitive processing
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Residing in an urban setting
  • Exposure to abuse, neglect, or other traumas

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder

The symptoms displayed by a child with conduct disorder will be different depending upon the age of the child and whether the disorder is mild, moderate, or severe. Symptoms for conduct disorder are divided into four different categories, including aggression, destruction, deceitfulness, and violation of the rules. Symptoms associated with each category are listed below:

Aggressive behavior:

  • Being cruel to others or animals
  • Using weapons
  • Forcing another person to engage in sexual activity against his or her will
  • Fighting
  • Causing or threatening physical harm
  • Bullying
  • Feeling excessively irritable 

Destructive behavior:

  • Destruction of property
  • Arson
  • Vandalism 

Deceitful behavior: 

  • Repeated lying
  • Shoplifting
  • Breaking into homes or cars 

Violation of rules: 

  • Running away
  • Skipping school
  • Playing pranks
  • Not following set curfews
  • Going against accepted rules of society
  • Engaging in behavior that is not appropriate for child’s age
  • Being sexually active at a young age 


Effects of conduct disorder

The behaviors demonstrated by children with conduct disorder often lead to blaming, labeling, and other unproductive activities. These children are often ostracized by other children, and parents of children with this disorder are sometimes viewed as being bad parents. Additionally, the presence of this disorder can lead to the development of a whole host of negative consequences that will only get worse in the future. The following are examples of possible effects that can arise when conduct disorder is left untreated:

  • Development of another mental health disorder
  • School related problems, such as failing or dropping out
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Legal problems
  • Engaging in sexual behaviors at an earlier age
  • Self-harm
  • Injury to others
  • Sexually transmitted diseases or infections
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Family difficulties
  • Problems making and/or keeping friends
  • Suicidal ideation and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

In addition to conduct disorder, it is possible to have another mental health condition at the same time. The listed mental health conditions are frequently present in those with conduct disorder:

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

I feel so much happier and healthier after getting help at Millcreek of Pontotoc.

– A former patient