Conduct disorder is a set of ongoing emotional and behavioral problems that occurs in children and teens. Problems may involve defiant or impulsive behavior, drug use, or criminal activity.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Conduct disorder has been linked to:
The diagnosis is more common among boys.
It is hard to know how common the disorder is. This is because many of the qualities for diagnosis, such as "defiance" and "rule breaking," are hard to define. For a diagnosis of conduct disorder, the behavior must be much more extreme than is socially acceptable.
Children with conduct disorder tend to be impulsive, hard to control, and not concerned about the feelings of other people.
Symptoms may include:
- Breaking rules without clear reason
- Cruel or aggressive behavior toward people or animals (for example: bullying, fighting, using dangerous weapons, forcing sexual activity, and stealing)
- Not going to school (truancy -- beginning before age 13)
- Heavy drinking and/or heavy drug abuse
- Intentionally setting fires
- Lying to get a favor or avoid things they have to do
- Running away
- Vandalizing or destroying property
These children often make no effort to hide their aggressive behaviors. They may have a hard time making real friends.
Signs and tests
There is no real test for diagnosing conduct disorder. The diagnosis is made when a child or adolescent has a history of conduct disorder behaviors.
A physical examination and blood tests can help rule out medical conditions that are similar to conduct disorder. In rare cases, a brain scan helps rule out other disorders.
For treatment to be successful, it must be started early. The child's family also needs to be involved. Parents can learn techniques to help manage their child's problem behavior.
In cases of abuse, the child may need to be removed from the family and placed in a less chaotic home. Treatment with medicines or talk therapy may be used for depression and attention-deficit disorder.
Many "behavioral modification" schools, "wilderness programs," and "boot camps" are sold to parents as solutions for conduct disorder. There is no research to support these programs. Research does suggest that treating children at home, along with their families, is more effective.
Children who are diagnosed and treated early usually overcome their behavioral problems.
Children who have severe or frequent symptoms and who are not able to complete treatment tend to have the poorest outlook.
Children with conduct disorder may go on to develop personality disorders as adults, particularly antisocial personality disorder. As their behaviors worsen, these individuals may also develop problems with drug abuse and the law.
Depression and bipolar disorder may develop in the teen years and early adulthood. Suicide and violence toward others are also possible complications.
Calling your health care provider
See a health care provider if your child:
- Regularly gets in trouble
- Has mood swings
- Is bullying others or cruel to animals
- Is being victimized
- Seems to be overly aggressive
Early treatment may help.
The sooner the treatment for conduct disorder is started, the more likely the child will learn adaptive behaviors and avoid potential complications.
Nurcombe B. Oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. In: Ebert MH, Loosen PT, Nurcombe B, Leckman JF, eds. Current Diagnosis & Treatment Psychiatry. 2nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2008:chap 36.
Walter HJ, DeMaso DR. Disruptive behavioral disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 27.
Whittinger NS. Clinical precursors of adolescent conduct disorder in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007;46:179-187.
Last reviewed 3/4/2013 by Fred K. Berger, MD, Addiction and Forensic Psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, California. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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