Most children will experience intense emotional and physical changes as they grow, and tantrums are typical, but a line exists between normal acting out and abnormal, negative behavior. When a child’s behavior becomes aggressive, deceitful, abusive, or destructive, these behaviors can indicate a conduct disorder.
A conduct disorder is an emotional and behavioral disorder in which a child behaves in such a way that their actions are outside the realm of social acceptability. Conduct disorders can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are vague and vary from individual to individual. Early recognition and intervention of conduct disorder is critical to helping a young person avoid harm to themselves and/or others.
Boys are more likely than girls to experience a conduct disorder. The disorder is a psychiatric syndrome that occurs in 6-16 percent of boys and 2-9 percent of girls, according to American Family Physician. Contributing and/or risk factors linked with conduct disorder include:
- Genetic defects
- History of child abuse
- History of parental alcohol abuse
- Intense family conflicts
No definitive physical or mental health test exists for identifying conduct disorder. Instead, a physician or psychiatric professional uses behavioral history to diagnose conduct disorder. Young people with conduct disorder must exhibit behavior consistent with the condition for at least six months. Young people usually exhibit behaviors that fall within one of the following four categories:
- Aggression—Cruel or aggressive behavior toward people and/or animals.
- Destruction—Setting fires or vandalizing property.
- Deceit—Not going to school, running away, lying to obtain a favor or lying to avoid responsibility.
- Rule violations—Engaging in illegal activities, including heavy drinking or drug abuse.
For a diagnosis to be made, these behaviors must be occurring for at least a six-month period of time. The occurrence of conduct disorder increases from childhood to adolescence.
Those with conduct disorders often have difficulty making and keeping friends. They are often in trouble with law enforcement, school officials, and caregivers. The more severe the conduct disorder, the more difficult it is for parents and medical professionals to reverse negative behaviors.
If a contributing factor to conduct disorder is child abuse, substance abuse, or chaotic homes, removing a young person from an abusive home is vital to overcoming the disorder. In other instances, parents may benefit from parent management training (PMT) with psychiatric professionals to help parents learn positive behaviors and behavior reinforcement techniques. Individual therapy sessions have not proven as successful as group and/or family therapy in reducing symptoms.
Young people with conduct disorders often also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. In some instances, a psychiatric or medical professional may prescribe medications to reduce hyperactivity, impulsivity, and difficulty maintaining attention.
Conduct disorders have similar symptoms to oppositional defiant disorder, including difficulty following rules. However, children with conduct disorders are physically aggressive where those with oppositional defiant disorder typically are not.
Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020
- Conduct disorders are severe, socially unacceptable behaviors in young people.
- Symptoms include aggressiveness, destruction, deceit and trouble with law enforcement officials.
- Early diagnosis and treatment is vital to overcoming conduct disorder. Treatment includes therapy and medication management, in some instances.