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Conduct Disorder

three teenage girls outside in front of rocky mountain

As teens start forming a unique identity and becoming independent, many will question limits and rules or parental authority. Some teens may even become defiant and hard to handle, arguing with adults and bending rules. Often it’s a phase that will pass with time and patience, but in some cases it will not.

Conduct disorder is a predominantly childhood and adolescent disorder characterized by a persistent disregard for the rights of others or for societal norms. A person with conduct disorder may be aggressive and violent towards other people or animals. They may even cause property loss or damage (or steal others’ property). It is not uncommon for an individual with conduct disorder to bully others and start fights. He or she often severely violates rules.

3 Important Facts

  • Conduct disorder affects an estimated 2-16 percent of U.S. children and teens.
  • More boys than girls are diagnosed with conduct disorder and it usually manifests in late childhood or the early teenage years.
  • A child or teen with conduct disorder is at risk for developing antisocial personality disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse problems, and other mental health conditions.

Signs to look for

  • Aggressive behavior: bullying, cruelty to animals or people, fighting, using weapons, or forcing someone into unwanted sexual activity.
  • Destruction of property
  • Deceitful behavior: lying, shoplifting, breaking into homes or cars with the intention to steal, or stealing from others.
  • Violation of rules: breaking societal rules or engaging in behavior that is not age appropriate. This may include skipping school, playing pranks, running away, or being sexually active at a very young age.

Next steps

Conduct disorder is a serious disorder that requires treatment. If you think you might be dealing with this disorder, make an appointment with a mental health professional. Usually treatment for conduct disorder requires a combination of individual therapy, group therapy, parent training, and family therapy. Sometimes medication is necessary to reduce symptoms sufficiently to enable the person to respond to the therapy.

Treatment of conduct disorder involves the entire family, not just the individual. This means parental involvement in the treatment process is critical. Family systems therapy, parent training, and parent-child interaction therapy are cornerstones to addressing the struggles of a defiant teen. Parental engagement in their child’s treatment, their own treatment and their family’s treatment greatly increases the likelihood of healing and growth for the defiant teen.

Common Q and A

What causes conduct disorder?

The exact causes of conduct disorder are unknown but it is likely caused by a combination of biological, social, psychological, and environmental factors. Some risk factors for developing conduct disorder include low socioeconomic status, brain damage, trauma, family history of mental illness or substance abuse, and lack of moral reasoning (such as feelings of guilt or remorse).

What is the outlook for people with conduct disorder?

Treatment outcomes vary, but people who are not treated for conduct disorder are at higher risk for developing other mental illnesses, substance abuse, suicide and problems with the law.

How is conduct disorder diagnosed?

A mental health professional will assess the symptoms and the individual’s history to make a proper diagnosis. In addition, it may be useful to have a medical exam to rule out a physical illness or brain injury that might be causing the behavior.

Can conduct disorder be prevented?

It may not be possible to prevent conduct disorder. However, recognizing the symptoms and soliciting treatment early may reduce the severity of the disorder. In addition, providing a loving home environment while maintaining discipline may also reduce symptoms and minimize destructive behavior.