Causes & Effects of Conduct Disorder

No one experiences conduct disorder the same way as someone else. Understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of conduct disorder is a key component toward starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn about conduct disorder

Diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, conduct disorder is a mental illness that is characterized by a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior that not only violates the rights of others, but does not follow age appropriate norms or rules. These inappropriate and often destructive behaviors can lead to significant impairment in social and academic functioning in a young person’s life, with the level of disruption determined by the severity of the disorder.

Children or adolescents with conduct disorder may display aggressive behaviors, including things such as bullying, starting physical fights, or intimidating others. They may destroy property by breaking windows, setting fires, or spray-painting the sides of buildings. Additionally, young people with conduct disorder may lie or steal to satisfy their own personal agenda. All of these behaviors can be found in a variety of settings, making it hard for these youth to succeed at school, maintain interpersonal relationships, or have good familial relationships. However, proper treatment for conduct disorder has been known to be effective at minimizing the occurrence of symptoms and allowing the child a better chance for a bright future.


Conduct disorder statistics

Research on the prevalence of conduct disorder has determined that approximately 4% of children and adolescents meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of this mental health condition. Additionally, conduct disorder is known to be more common in male adolescents than it is in female adolescents. It is said that, in the general population, 6% to 16% of boys develop conduct disorder while only 2% to 9% of females struggle with this illness.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder

Mental health professionals are unsure as to what the exact cause for conduct disorder is, but they have come to the conclusion that is multifactorial, meaning that many different factors contribute to the development of this disorder. Examples of such factors are described in more detail below:

Genetic: This mental illness is known to run in families and thus has a strong genetic component. Children and adolescents who have biological relatives who struggle with this condition are at a greater risk for the onset of this disorder at some point in their lives than are those who do not share similar family histories. Additionally, childhood temperament is considered to have a genetic basis and those who are considered to have a difficult temperament are more likely to develop behavior problems.

Physical: Neuropsychological testing has provided evidence that children and adolescents with conduct disorder have impairments in the frontal lobe of their brains. This may lead to the development of conduct disorder because this part of the brain is responsible for planning, avoiding harm, and learning from negative experiences. When the frontal lobe is not properly structured, these abilities are impaired, making an individual more susceptible to experiencing the onset of conduct disorder.

Environmental: There are a number of environmental factors and conditions that can influence whether or not youth will develop a mental health condition like conduct disorder. Those who come from disadvantaged, dysfunctional, or disorganized home environments have been known to have a greater chance of developing this mental health condition. Additionally, young people whose parents are not very involved, are inconsistent, or who fail to implement appropriate discipline methods are also more susceptible to developing this mental illness.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Personal history of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or other mental health condition
  • Family history of conduct disorder or other mental health condition
  • Victim of various forms of abuse and/or neglect
  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Exposure to crime and violence
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Living in an urban setting
  • Poor parenting or a lack of parental involvement
  • Lack of appropriate discipline

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder

In most cases, the symptoms associated with conduct disorder are categorized into four different groups, including aggression to people or animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft, and finally, serious violation of rules. However, the specific symptoms displayed will depend upon the individual child and the severity of the disorder. The following symptoms may be present in a child or adolescent with conduct disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Bullies, threatens, or intimidates others
  • Often starts physical fights
  • Uses a weapon that can cause serious harm to others
  • Is physically cruel to people or animals
  • Steals from others
  • Has forced someone into sexual activity
  • Has deliberately set a fire with the intention of causing harm
  • Intentionally destroys property
  • Has broken into homes, cars, or buildings
  • Constantly lies
  • Defies rules that have been set by parents or other authority figures
  • Runs away from home
  • Refuses to go to school

Physical symptoms:

  • Physical injuries as the result of accidents or fights
  • Presence of sexually transmitted diseases as a result of engaging in risky sexual behaviors
  • Presence of burns due to starting fires

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Problems concentrating
  • Delayed intellect
  • Inability to make good decisions
  • Impaired memory
  • Poor or nonexistent impulse control

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Lacks empathy or concern for others
  • Lacks guilt or the ability to feel remorse
  • Misjudges the intentions of others as being hostile or threatening
  • Fails to express feelings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Is easily irritated
  • Has low frustration tolerance
  • Feels a false sense of grandiosity
  • Excessive feelings of agitation
  • Excessive feelings of irritability


Effects of conduct disorder

When children and adolescents have conduct disorder and do not receive appropriate treatment in order to address the condition, they are at risk of suffering from a number of negative long-term effects. Examples of such effects can include:

  • Experiencing the onset of symptoms of other mental health conditions
  • Being suspended or expelled from school as the result of behavioral problems
  • Legal problems
  • Contracting sexually transmitted diseases, experiencing unplanned pregnancies, and/or developing physical injuries
  • Academic failure
  • Truancy
  • Engagement in ongoing risky sexual behaviors
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Family disruption
  • Failure to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

Children and adolescents who have conduct disorder tend to struggle with symptoms of another mental health disorder as well. The following are some conditions/disorders that often co-exist alongside conduct disorder:

  • Learning difficulties
  • Depressive disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
What Past Clients Say

Comparing my son's behavior from before going to DBI to now is such a turnaround! I cannot thank the staff enough!

– Parent of a former client