It is hard to know how common the disorder is. This is because many of the qualities for diagnosis, such as "defiance" and "rule breaking," are hard to define. For a diagnosis of conduct disorder, the behavior must be much more extreme than is socially acceptable.
Children with conduct disorder tend to be impulsive, hard to control, and not concerned about the feelings of other people.
Symptoms may include:
Breaking rules without clear reason
Cruel or aggressive behavior toward people or animals (for example: bullying, fighting, using dangerous weapons, forcing sexual activity, and stealing)
Not going to school (truancy, beginning before age 13)
Heavy drinking and/or heavy drug abuse
Intentionally setting fires
Lying to get a favor or avoid things they have to do
Vandalizing or destroying property
These children often make no effort to hide their aggressive behaviors. They may have a hard time making real friends.
Exams and Tests
There is no real test for diagnosing conduct disorder. The diagnosis is made when a child or teen has a history of conduct disorder behaviors.
A physical examination and blood tests can help rule out medical conditions that are similar to conduct disorder. In rare cases, a brain scan helps rule out other disorders.
For treatment to be successful, it must be started early. The child's family also needs to be involved. Parents can learn techniques to help manage their child's problem behavior.
In cases of abuse, the child may need to be removed from the family and placed in a less chaotic home. Treatment with medicines or talk therapy may be used for depression and attention-deficit disorder.
Many "behavioral modification" schools, "wilderness programs," and "boot camps" are sold to parents as solutions for conduct disorder. There is no research to support these programs. Research does suggest that treating children at home, along with their families, is more effective.
Children who are diagnosed and treated early usually overcome their behavioral problems.
Children who have severe or frequent symptoms and who are not able to complete treatment tend to have the poorest outlook.
Children with conduct disorder may go on to develop personality disorders as adults, particularly antisocial personality disorder. As their behaviors worsen, these individuals may also develop problems with drug abuse and the law.
Depression and bipolar disorder may develop in the teen years and early adulthood. Suicide and violence toward others are also possible complications.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
See a health care provider if your child:
Regularly gets in trouble
Has mood swings
Is bullying others or cruel to animals
Is being victimized
Seems to be overly aggressive
Early treatment may help.
The sooner treatment is started, the more likely the child will learn adaptive behaviors and avoid potential complications.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
Walter HJ, Rashid A, Moseley LR, DeMaso DR. Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 29.
Weissman AR, Gould CM, Sanders KM. Impulse-control disorders. In: Stern TA, Fava M, Wilens TE, Rosenbaum JF, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 23.
Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.