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What is conduct disorder?

Conduct disorder is a mental health condition that can affect children and teenagers. Kids who have conduct disorder seem to enjoy hurting people and doing bad things. They are unkind and often violent, and they don’t care about other people’s feelings. This behavior goes beyond normal teasing, bullying, or acting out.  

Extreme bullying, hurting animals, and lying for no reason are all signs of conduct disorder. In younger kids, conduct disorder starts with pushing, hitting and biting. In older kids, conduct disorder can come with more extreme violent behavior and crimes like stealing, destroying things and setting fires. 

All kids act out sometimes, so conduct disorder is only diagnosed when this extreme behavior shows up over a long period of time and isn’t caused by the child’s environment. 

What are the symptoms of conduct disorder?

Symptoms of conduct disorder include: 

  • Not caring about social norms of good behavior 
  • Ignoring the rights and feelings of other people 
  • Enjoying causing harm, lying or manipulating people 
  • Committing physical or sexual violence 
  • Hurting animals 
  • In younger kids: lying for no real reason, stealing for the fun of it, and extreme bullying 
  • In older kids: picking fights, lying, cheating, stealing, destroying property, and physically or emotionally abusing others 

How is conduct disorder diagnosed?

Conduct disorder is different from just bad behavior or acting out, which most kids do at some point. Kids must show symptoms of conduct disorder for several months at a time to be diagnosed. Before diagnosing a child with conduct disorder, a professional will also try to figure out if their extreme behavior could be a reaction to problems at home. To be diagnosed, a child’s enjoyment of causing pain must seem to come from something inside them. 

What are the risk factors for conduct disorder?

Several things put kids at higher risk of developing conduct disorder: 

  • Having a parent or sibling with conduct disorder  
  • Having a biological parent who abuses alcohol or has depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia  
  • Experiencing abuse or neglect 
  • Being bullied or having friends who encourage negative behavior 

How is conduct disorder treated?

Conduct disorder is hard to treat but treatment can work if the child’s family, friends and teachers get involved. Treatment works better if it starts when the child is young. 

In therapy for conduct disorder, the child learns healthier ways to interact with others. At the same time, the child’s family and support system learn ways to communicate with the child. Children with conduct disorder usually stay in psychotherapy or behavioral therapy for a long time. 

In younger children, therapy for conduct disorder usually involves teaching parents how to encourage good behavior. In adolescents, therapy may also focus on the child’s relationships with friends, other kids, and adults at school (like teachers and principals).  

There is no medication specifically for conduct disorder. But kids with conduct disorder sometimes have other disorders as well, like depression or bipolar disorder. Treating those other disorders with medication can help therapy for conduct disorder work better. 

This guide was last reviewed or updated on February 23, 2023.