Causes, Signs, & Effects of Conduct Disorder

Are you concerned that you or a loved one may be struggling with conduct disorder? Learn about the causes, signs, and effects to identify whether professional treatment may be necessary.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn about conduct disorder

To receive a diagnosis for conduct disorder, individuals must demonstrate repetitive and consistent patterns of disregarding the basic rights of others or behaving in a way that is not appropriate for his or her age and expected rules and societal norms. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the behavioral symptoms of conduct disorder are categorized in four ways:

  • Aggression that threatens or causes harm to animals or people
  • Violations of rules and laws
  • Destruction of property
  • Theft or deceitfulness

Those who battle conduct disorder might display behavior from one or many of these categories. These behaviors tend to present themselves in many different places and times and lead to conflict and strain, as well as challenges in the lives of those afflicted with it and their families. Since these behaviors can be extreme, those with conduct disorder are often unable to function at work, at school, or in social settings.

Most commonly, conduct disorder is diagnosed in children and adolescents under the age of 16. However, this disorder can also be diagnosed in adults of all ages, and the symptoms that accompany this disorder can grow worse with age. Those who receive a childhood diagnosis of conduct disorder prior to the age of 10 are more likely to have symptoms during adulthood. Fortunately, however, treatments are available that can help individuals with conduct disorder to live full and fulfilling lives.


Conduct disorder statistics

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) estimates that between 2% and 10% of individuals meet criteria for conduct disorder in a given year. The disorder becomes more common into adolescence and is more common among males.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder

There are a number of factors that can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing conduct disorder. Below are the causes and risk factors connected to a diagnosis of conduct disorder:

Genetic: Like other mental health conditions, the onset of conduct disorder can be impacted significantly by one’s genetics. For example, someone who has a parent or a sibling with conduct disorder or a disorder similar to it will be more likely to experience similar problems. Those with a family history of mental illness, like bipolar disorder, alcohol use disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or depression have a greater risk of receiving a conduct disorder diagnosis.

Environmental: An individual’s environment can play a significant role in the development of conduct disorder. Those who were neglected or abused as children have an increased incidence of conduct disorder symptoms. Additionally, someone with a history of assault, sexual abuse, or accidents might also struggle with conduct disorder later in life.

Risk Factors:

  • Being the victim of abuse or neglect
  • Frequent moves or changes in caregivers during childhood
  • Parents who were involved in crime
  • A family history of substance use disorders
  • Experience being institutionalized as a child or adult
  • Being male

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder

Depending on someone’s age, the signs and symptoms of conduct disorder can vary. Adults who are older might experience conduct disorder differently than adolescents or young adults. When present in young adulthood, conduct disorder can cause individuals to experience a shift in hormones, sexual maturity, a peak of physical strength, and a growth of cognitive ability. Each of these factors can impact behavior, and since each individual is unique, the intensity of behaviors can vary.

Overall, conduct disorders can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Intimidates, threatens, and bullies other people
  • Has sexually assaulted another person
  • Theft of personal property or shoplifting
  • Fire-setting
  • Has caused harm to another person with a weapon
  • Is involved in or initiates fights
  • Property destruction
  • Frequently lies or bends the truth
  • Refuses to comply with job requirements
  • Engages in cruelty to animals or children

Physical symptoms:

  • Burns from starting fires
  • Injuries from physical fights or through destruction of property
  • Sexually transmitted diseases as a result of risky sexual behavior

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Lowered ability to concentrate on tasks
  • Low ability to control impulses

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • No remorse or guilt over actions
  • Little or no patience
  • Portrays a false belief of grandiosity
  • Little or no empathy
  • Irritability or agitation


Effects of conduct disorder

When allowed to go untreated, conduct disorder can ravage an individual’s life and the lives of those surrounding him or her. The effects and consequences of this condition can include:

  • Relationship conflicts
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance use disorders and substance dependence
  • Onset of other mental illnesses
  • Sexually transmitted diseases due to risky sexual behavior
  • Arrests or jail time
  • Difficulty obtaining and keeping a job
  • Family conflict
  • Financial difficulties

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

Those who have conduct disorder will often struggle with additional mental illnesses at the same time. Unfortunately, when conduct disorder occurs alongside other disorders, the individual’s outcome often grows worse. Some examples of the disorders that can present themselves in conjunction with conduct disorder include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
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