Conduct disorders are defined as a group of repetitive and persistent behavioral, social, and emotional problems in young children and adolescents. Children and adolescents with conduct disorder may have trouble following rules, respecting the rights of others, and showing empathy.
As a result, youth with conduct disorder are often viewed by adults as “bad” or delinquent rather than struggling emotionally and mentally. Because childhood and adolescent conduct disorder may develop into antisocial personality disorder in adulthood, early intervention and early treatment are essential.
Symptoms of Conduct Disorder
The symptoms of conduct disorder vary from person to person. Common behaviors and symptoms associated with conduct disorders generally fall into four categories, namely:
- Aggressive behavior toward others. These behaviors may include physical aggression toward people and animals, bullying, fighting, and using weapons. Children with conduct disorder show a disregard for others’ feelings and a lack of remorse after an aggressive episode.
- Destructive behavior. These behaviors may include the intentional destruction of property, arson, and other violent behavior.
- Deceitful behavior. These behaviors may include lying, stealing from others, and shoplifting.
- Serious violation of rules. This involves going against the accepted rules of society or engaging in behaviors that are not age-appropriate. These behaviors may include running away from home, a lack of respect for authority figures, substance use, and other impulse-driven behaviors, such as sexual activity at a young age.
Many children with conduct disorder are irritable, struggle from low self-esteem, and throw frequent temper tantrums. In most cases, those with conduct disorder do not understand how their behavior can hurt others and generally have little remorse about hurting others.
What causes conduct disorder?
While the exact cause of conduct disorder is unknown, mental health experts believe that several factors play a role in its development, including:
- Environmental factors: Factors such as a dysfunctional home environment, child abuse, neglect, and negative experiences during childhood can lead to a greater risk of conduct disorder. A family history of substance use disorder or other psychiatric conditions may also play a role in developing conduct disorder.
- Social factors: Low socioeconomic status, lack of acceptance from peers, or association with a deviant peer group can put an individual at higher risk for conduct disorder.
- Psychological factors: Some adolescent psychiatrists and mental health experts believe that conduct disorders may reflect impairment with moral awareness and deficits in cognitive processing.
- Biological factors: Research suggests that brain injuries correlate with the development of behavioral disorders. Conduct disorder has been linked to the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for regulating impulse control, behavior, and emotion. Young children and adolescents with conduct disorder may also have co-occurring mental health issues, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, oppositional defiant disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder, which can exacerbate the symptoms of conduct disorder.
- Genetic factors: Many children with conduct disorder have family members or biological parents with mental disorders, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. A family history of mental illness may lead to a greater risk of developing conduct problems.
How is conduct disorder diagnosed?
The diagnosis of conduct disorder involves a comprehensive evaluation of your child’s behavior by a trained psychiatrist or psychologist. If the symptoms of conduct disorder are present, your mental health professional may begin the evaluation by asking about your child’s medical and psychiatric history. If a physical condition may be contributing to the symptoms, your doctor may recommend a physical exam.
Mental health professionals typically rely on reports from parents, teachers, and caregivers, as children may withhold information or have trouble understanding their behavioral problems.
The diagnosis of conduct disorder requires the presence of at least three of the 15 diagnostic criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
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Treatment Options for Conduct Disorder
Treatment for conduct disorder is based on several factors, including the child’s years of age, symptom severity, and ability to tolerate specific types of therapy. The most effective treatment plans for conduct disorder generally involve a combination of the following methods:
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy helps children learn to express and control negative behaviors and emotions more appropriately. One type of psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), helps reshape thought patterns to improve problem-solving skills, moral reasoning, impulse control, and anger management. Family therapy can also help improve parent-child interactions.
- Medication: While there’s no medication formally approved to treat conduct disorders, child and adolescent psychiatrists may suggest using drugs off-label to treat some of the disorders’ symptoms, including impulsivity and aggression. Medication can also help treat co-occurring mental disorders, including ADHD and bipolar disorder.
- Family support: Taking steps to reduce stress at home, foster healthy parent-child interactions, and avoid harsh discipline can help reduce the symptoms of conduct disorder. Parents of children with conduct disorder should consider seeking treatment for their mental health issues.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, conduct disorder typically requires long-term treatment, as establishing new attitudes and behavioral patterns take time. With that said, early treatment can children significantly improve their symptoms.
Therapy for Conduct Disorders
Younger children and adolescents act out sometimes, but those with conduct disorder consistently behave in unusually aggressive, destructive, and deceitful ways. According to the American Psychiatric Association, early intervention is essential for children with conduct disorder to improve their quality of life and prevent mental health issues in adulthood.
If you think your child or adolescent has conduct disorder, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a child psychiatrist, adolescent psychiatrist, or therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. Whether you’re interested in family therapy, group peer therapy, or behavioral therapy, one of the experienced mental health specialists on the WithTherapy platform will work with your family to help your child learn positive behavioral patterns and live a fulfilling life.