Understanding Conduct Disorder in Children

Your 14-year-old son steals money from your purse. He lies about where he’s going and he’s skipping school more often. You think this is normal teen behavior. But it may be conduct disorder, a condition that can be treated. If your child’s actions are causing you concern, don’t lose hope. Many caring people can help. Contact a mental health professional, your pediatrician, your school psychologist or school counselor, or your local mental health clinic.

A boy bullying another boy in class.

What is conduct disorder?

Children with conduct disorder often behave in violent or harmful ways. They may lie, steal, or get into frequent fights. They might even carry weapons or attack others. Sometimes these children are thought of as delinquents. At other times, their actions may be dismissed as normal. Neither is true. In fact, many may have problems that have been missed or ignored. Some may have had a severe injury to the head or face. Some may be depressed or have other emotional problems.

Who does it affect?

Conduct disorder is the term used for a group of specific behavioral or emotional problems found in children. Children and teens with this condition have problems behaving in a manner that is socially acceptable. They also have great trouble following rules. Conduct disorder is one of the most easily identified emotional disorders in pre-teens and teens. It affects far more boys than girls.

What can help?

Treatment for children with conduct disorders is complex and challenging. The treatment setting depends on the severity of the behaviors. A comprehensive assessment from multiple professionals familiar with the condition is critical. Behavior therapy can greatly help children with conduct disorder. The goal of treatment is to help them understand how their actions affect others. Certain medicines may also help relieve symptoms of conduct disorder. Many children with conduct disorder also have a second psychiatric disorder that may be treated with medicine.  

Your role

Dealing with conduct disorder can be very stressful. Coping with conduct disorder can tear families apart just when your child needs your love more than ever. Your support and caring are a key part of the healing process. Don't try and manage alone. Ask your child's treatment team for support. The team may also know of parent or family support groups that may be helpful to both parents and siblings as well.

Signs of conduct disorder

Not every child who gets into trouble has conduct disorder. But signs to watch for include:

  • Stealing

  • Constant lying

  • Setting fires on purpose

  • Skipping school

  • Breaking into homes or cars

  • Destroying others’ property

  • Being cruel to animals or humans

  • Forcing sex on others

  • Starting fights often

  • Using weapons in fights