What is conduct disorder?

Conduct disorder is a behavioral and emotional disorder in children and teens. It can cause kids to defy rules and authority figures. Children with conduct disorder may show little regard for others. They're often disrespectful. Sometimes they're labeled "bad kids" in school. This kind of behavior is consistent and repetitive. It goes beyond acting out once in a while. This condition can get to a point where the behavior interrupts the child's daily life or the family's daily life. 

Causes of conduct disorder

There isn't one clear cause that can make conduct disorder develop. However, doctors believe genetic and environmental factors can lead to this condition. Damage to a child's frontal lobe might be linked to conduct disorder. This is the part of the brain that helps people process thoughts, store memories and express emotions. A child can be born with this damage, or it can happen from an injury.

Environmental factors are things in a child's life — not something in their body — that can influence how the child acts. Poverty, abuse and parents who abuse drugs are environmental factors that might lead to conduct disorder.

Risk factors for conduct disorder

The risk factors for conduct disorder include children who have:

  • A parent or sibling with conduct disorder
  • Experienced abuse, rejection, neglect or violence
  • Parents with mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder

Symptoms of conduct disorder

Symptoms of conduct disorder can be different because kids are different. They can also vary in how intense they are. Symptoms of this condition typically include:

Destructive behavior: A child may purposefully destroy property, which could include vandalism or arson.

Deceitful behavior: A child may lie. They might also commit crimes that involve hiding the truth, such as stealing. 

Violating rules: Most kids break the rules now and then. A child with conduct disorder consistently defies orders at home, at school and in society. They might skip school or run away. They want to defy their parents for trying to punish them.

Aggressive behavior: A child may fight or bully others. They might try to force other kids into an unwanted activity with the threat of violence. They might be aggressive to children, adults and pets. They feel little remorse for this behavior. Sometimes they use "weapons of convenience" in their aggression, like sticks or broken bottles. 

Diagnosis of conduct disorder

If your child shows symptoms of conduct disorder, make them a doctor's appointment. Their doctor can have them do an evaluation. This text looks at your child's medical and mental states. 

First, doctors look for physical reasons for the symptoms. They might order brain scans and blood tests. These can show the doctor if any physical changes are happening. In addition, the doctor may refer your child to a psychiatrist. This is a professional who is trained to assess behaviors. The psychiatrist might also want to talk to you. They may ask about your child's behavior. It's important to be honest about what's going on at home and at school. This helps the psychiatrist understand your child's behavior. They can make a more accurate diagnosis when they know more.

After the evaluation and interviews, the psychiatrist may diagnose your child with conduct disorder. Then, they'll help you work on a treatment plan.

Treatment for conduct disorder

Treatment for conduct disorder often includes both therapy and medication. The psychiatrist might suggest cognitive-behavioral therapy. This is a type of therapy that helps kids look at the way they think. It also teaches them behavior tools. They can use these tools to improve problem-solving skills, anger management and impulse control. 

The most effective therapy is intense. It starts at a young age. It can include real-world scenarios to help kids learn more. It also often involves a family component. Family therapy, for example, helps everyone understand the condition. You can learn how to react in certain situations. 

There aren't any medications specifically for conduct disorder. There are some medications that can treat some of the symptoms. Doctors sometimes prescribe Ritalin or Dexedrine. These can reduce aggressive or impulsive behaviors.

Lithium is a medication that doctors usually prescribe for people with bipolar disorder. They sometimes prescribe it to children with conduct disorder, too. It can level out mood swings and hostility.

Kids with conduct disorder may have other mental conditions like ADHD or depression. A therapist can provide treatment for those conditions, too.

Recovery from conduct disorder

Children with conduct disorder can grow up to function in society without behavioral problems. To reach this outcome, treatment is essential. 

Children who show signs of conduct disorder need medical care immediately. This is a serious condition. It can lead to additional problems if left unchecked. Antisocial behavior, anxiety and substance abuse can stem from untreated mental illness. That's why it's important to seek medical care when you first see your child's symptoms.