A conduct disorder refers to any of a group of serious emotional and behavioral problems in children and adolescents. Children with conduct disorders frequently behave in extremely troubling, socially unacceptable, and often illegal ways, though they feel justified in their actions and show little to no empathy for their victims. Others may view these children as simply “bad boys” or “bad girls,” without realizing they have a mental disorder. Conduct disorder may be diagnosed in adulthood, but symptoms most commonly begin by the age of 16. Some children who have conduct disorder go on to develop a similar condition known as antisocial personality disorder as adults.
Symptoms of conduct disorder generally fall into four categories:
- Aggressive behavior toward people and animals. This includes bullying, threatening, physical violence, use of a weapon, physical cruelty to people or animals, and forcing someone to perform a sexual act.
- Property destruction, including setting fires and purposefully destroying property.
- Deceit or theft, including lying, breaking into someone else’s property with the intent to steal, and shoplifting.
- Serious violations of rules, including breaking family rules, running away from home, and frequently skipping school before the age of 13.
For a diagnosis of conduct disorder, at least three of these behaviors must have occurred within the past year, with at least one occurring within the past six months. The number of symptoms exhibited, and the degree of injury or damage done, determines whether it is a case of mild, moderate, or severe conduct disorder.
While the cause is unclear, many possible factors can put a child at risk of developing conduct disorder. These include child abuse, impulsive behavior, low academic achievement, poor parental supervision, callous or unemotional parental attitude, antisocial parents or peers, trauma, poverty, and living in a high-crime neighborhood or attending a school with a high delinquency rate.
With the right care, and a good support system in place, conduct disorder can be managed. The earlier the diagnosis, the more successful the treatment will be. Treatment is often long-term psychotherapy and behavior therapy to help the child learn healthier and more acceptable ways of thinking and behaving. In some cases, medication may be used to treat both the conduct disorder and any co-existing conditions that may be diagnosed. Additionally, shorter-term parent management training can help the family understand the problem, learn new ways of responding to the child, and rebuild the child-parent relationship.