Conduct Disorder Basics

Conduct Disorder (CD) is characterized by callous disregard for and aggression toward others, from pushing, hitting and biting in early childhood to bullying, cruelty and violence in adolescence. In this guide you'll find the signs and symptoms of conduct disorder, how it’s diagnosed and options for treatment.

Conduct Disorder: What Is It?

Conduct disorder is a severe condition characterized by hostile and sometimes physically violent behavior and a disregard for others. Children with CD exhibit cruelty, from early pushing, hitting and biting to, later, more than normal teasing and bullying, hurting animals, picking fights, theft, vandalism, and arson. Since childhood and adolescent conduct disorder often develops into the adult antisocial personality disorder, it should be addressed with treatment as early as possible; the earlier treatment starts, the better the outlook.

Conduct Disorder: What to Look For

One of the hallmarks of conduct disorder is a seemingly callous disregard for societal norms and the rights, feelings, and personal space of other people. Children and adolescents with CD seem to “get a rise” out of causing harm. For them, aggression, deceit, coercion—behaviors that result in a power differential—are gratifying. Picking fights, trespassing, lying, cheating, stealing, vandalism, and emotionally or physically abusive behavior, including wielding a deadly weapon or forcing sex, are all signs that an older child may have conduct disorder. Signs of the disorder in younger children may be harder to discern from more normal acting out, but are similarly coercive: relentless bullying, lying for the sake of lying, stealing items of no apparent worth.

Since all kids and adolescents act out from time to time, experts caution that a persistent pattern of this sort of behavior must be in evidence before CD is considered. Professionals also attempt to determine if the behavior is a negative adaptation to a troubled environment, a “learned” behavior, or if the gratification that comes from aggression seems to originate from within.

Conduct Disorder: Risk Factors

Children with a parent (biological or adoptive) or a sibling with conduct disorder are more likely to develop the disorder. Kids whose biological parents have ADHD, alcohol use disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia are also at risk. Children who experienced abuse, parental rejection or neglect, and harsh or inconsistent parenting are more at risk, as are those exposed to neighborhood violence, peer rejection, and peer delinquency.

Conduct Disorder: Diagnosis

A child is diagnosed with CD if he exhibits a callous disregard for others and a sustained pattern of behaviors that fit into these general categories: aggression against people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness and theft, and serious violations of rules. A professional will talk with parents, teachers and other adults involved in his life to rule out other possible causes.

Conduct Disorder: Treatment

Conduct disorder is difficult to overcome, but it is not hopeless. In situations where an effective support network of parental figures, teachers, and peers can be assembled, the disorder is manageable.

Psychotherapy: Treatment for conduct disorder is complicated by the negative attitudes the disorder instills. As such, psychotherapy and behavioral therapy are often undertaken for long periods of time, and the entire family and support network of the child is brought into the loop. The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the more successful the therapy will be. While a child learns a better way to interact with the world at large, the family learns the best ways to communicate with him.

In younger children, treatment for CD can resemble treatment for ODD—parent management training may be undertaken by a therapist to teach parents how to encourage desired behaviors. In adolescents, therapy may target not just the home life but interactions with authority figures at school, and ensuring that peer relations are beneficial, not harmful.

Since conduct disorder is often (but not always) diagnosed along with a number of other conditions that can be treated pharmacologically, medication may figure into treatment plans for the disorder.

Conduct Disorder: Risk For Other Disorders

ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder occur with frequency in children with conduct disorder. Other disorders that may occur with CD include specific learning disorder, anxiety disorders, depressive or bipolar disorders, and substance use disorders.