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.