Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Conduct Disorder

If you or your loved one are struggling with conduct disorder, Vermilion is here to help. Learning about conduct disorder can help you or your loved one manage its symptoms.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn about conduct disorder

Characterized by repetitive behavior patterns that violate age-appropriate social norms and the basic rights of others, conduct disorder is a disorder that can manifest in young children. Those that meet criteria for the disorder often have significant impairment in several areas of life. This is due to an impulsion to break rules, damage property, initiate belligerent behavior, and act aggressively towards others. Moreover, those with conduct disorder often misinterpret non-aggressive words or behaviors in others as hostile and act without regard to possible consequences.

Because of the level of impairment caused, those with conduct disorder are susceptible to developing substance use problems and have an increased risk for suicide in adolescence and adulthood. Treatment for this disorder has shown effectiveness in reducing the possible adverse effects and help those with conduct disorder abstain from behavior that can bring about life-altering consequences.   


Conduct disorder statistics

Research has found that an average of 4% of children meet criteria for a conduct disorder diagnosis. Of that 4%, more boys are diagnosed than girls. Those that reside in urban areas have a greater likelihood of showing signs and symptoms of the disorder than individuals who reside rural communities. Conduct disorder is among one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in childhood.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder

The predictive factors that can conclude an appropriate conduct disorder diagnosis can differ person to person. And because research has yet to discover a single cause for conduct disorder, experts agree that the following factors increase an individual’s likelihood of developing conduct disorder:

Genetic: Children with a biological parent who has a conduct disorder diagnosis are at an increased risk for developing the disorder themselves. This is because research has found that conduct disorder does have a genetic competent. Additionally, it is believed that the presence of other mental illnesses in a person’s family history, such as depressive or bipolar disorders, can also contribute to an eventual diagnosis of conduct disorder.

Physical: Research has found that those with conduct disorder have structural and functional differences in their brains as opposed to individuals without the disorder. The frontal lobe, the part of the brain that is responsible for personality, shows signs of impairment in those with conduct disorder.

Environmental: There are several environmental contributors believed to lead to a conduct disorder diagnosis. Negative parental interaction is said to have a profound effect on a child’s life. Rejection, neglect, and abuse experienced at the hands of one’s parent is an environmental risk that could result in conduct disorder in a child. Moreover, inconsistent parenting, harsh punishments,, frequent changes in caregivers, large family size, and having a parent with a criminal background are also believed to have an effect. Lastly, experts believe that children who experience trauma, peer rejection, or have had exposure to violence are also at an increased risk.   

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Preexisting mental disorder
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Family history of criminal activity
  • Exposure to trauma or violence
  • Living in an urban setting
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Early institutional living

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder

Indicators that a person is suffering from conduct disorder can vary. Severity of the signs and symptoms often depends on age of onset. If onset occurs in childhood, as early as the preschool years, research has found that symptoms can be more severe. However, if onset occurs during adolescence, it is believed that the symptoms can be milder. Listed are the signs and symptoms that are often associated with conduct disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Breaking rules
  • Stealing
  • Running away from home
  • Lying
  • Bullying
  • Truancy
  • Destruction of property
  • Uncontrolled outbursts
  • Instigative behaviors
  • Physical violence
  • Rape or sexual assault

Physical symptoms:

  • Injury as a result of fighting
  • Burns as a result of fire starting
  • Presence of sexually transmitted diseases due to risky sexual behaviors 

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Lower-than-average intellectual abilities
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of decision-making

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Lack of guilt
  • Irritability
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of remorse
  • False sense of grandiosity


Effects of conduct disorder

Untreated conduct disorder could render a person susceptible to a number of effects, especially since the disorder can carry over into adulthood. Ranging from mild to severe, the listed consequences could occur:

  • School suspension or expulsion
  • Early onset of sexual behaviors
  • Poor work performance
  • Increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Engagement in risky behaviors
  • Interaction with the legal system
  • Criminal activity
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Development of another mental illness

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

Those with a diagnosis of conduct disorder may also meet criteria for other mental health conditions. The following are other mental illnesses that could be present in a person with conduct disorder:

  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Specific learning disorder
  • Communication disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Substance-related disorders