Conduct Disorder Causes & Effects

The signs, symptoms, and effects of conduct disorder can look different for each person impacted. Learning about conduct disorder is one of the first steps toward healing.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn about conduct disorder

Conduct disorder is characterized by persistent and repetitive behavior patterns that violate the basic rights of others or go against age-appropriate societal rules or norms. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition breaks down the specific behaviors that are characteristic of conduct disorder into the following four categories:

  • Aggressive conduct that causes or threatens physical harm to other people or animals
  • Non-aggressive conduct that causes property loss or damage
  • Deceitfulness or theft
  • Serious violations of rules

When individuals have conduct disorder, they may exhibit behaviors from all four categories or from one more predominantly than others. As a result of these behaviors, individuals with conduct disorder can experience significant disturbances in their ability to function socially, academically, and occupationally. These disturbances are present across a variety of settings and can lead to significant upheaval in the lives of the individuals with the disorder, as well as in the lives of those around them.

Conduct disorder can be diagnosed in adults, but it is most frequently diagnosed in children and adolescents younger than age 16. Those with adolescent-onset conduct disorder present with symptoms after age 10, and those with childhood-onset type present with symptoms prior to age 10. The exhibited behaviors are typically less severe in children of younger ages, but will progressively worsen as they get older. Those individuals with childhood-onset type are more likely to experience symptoms persisting into adulthood, while those with adolescent-onset type are more likely to experience a remission of symptoms by the time they reach adulthood.

The long-term effects that can arise when treatment is not sought can have a monumental impact on an individual’s overall wellbeing. Fortunately, there are treatment options available for conduct disorder that can help individuals learn the skills necessary to overcome their negative behaviors and instead live full, productive, and happy lives.


Conduct disorder statistics

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the prevalence of conduct disorder ranges from 2 percent to 10 percent, with an average of 4 percent of the population displaying symptoms of this condition. The rates of those afflicted by this disorder are said to rise from childhood to adolescence and more males are affected by conduct disorder than are females. There are no noted differences in the prevalence of this disorder across various cultures, races, or ethnicities.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder

There are a number of factors that can contribute to an individual’s susceptibility for developing conduct disorder. Such factors are discussed briefly in the following:

Genetic: The onset of conduct disorder is said to be influenced by genetic factors, such that those who have a biological parent or sibling who struggles with this disorder are more likely to experience symptoms themselves than are those who do not have the same type of family history. Additionally, individuals whose biological parents suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol use disorder, schizophrenia, or ADHD are said to be more vulnerable to experiencing the onset of conduct disorder.

Environmental: There are a number of environmental factors that can influence the onset of conduct disorder. Things such as suffering from parental rejection, neglect, harsh discipline, and inconsistent parenting can all impact an individual’s susceptibility to experiencing symptoms of this disorder. Additionally, being the victim of physical or sexual abuse, having a lack of supervision, or experiencing peer rejection can all play a role in the vulnerability one has to developing conduct disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Being the victim of abuse or neglect
  • Early institutional living
  • Having a family history of substance use disorders
  • Experiencing a frequent change in caregivers
  • Parental history of criminal involvement

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder

The signs and symptoms displayed by those with conduct disorder are said to vary with age due to the fact that, as individuals get older, their physical strength, sexual maturity, and cognitive abilities all typically become stronger, affecting the way in which they behave. The severity of the behaviors will also vary from person to person, but may include the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Initiates physical fights
  • Bullies, threatens, or intimidates others
  • Has been physically cruel to people or animals
  • Has used a weapon to cause physical harm
  • Steals
  • Has forced someone into unwanted sexual activity
  • Sets fires
  • Destroys property
  • Lies
  • School refusal or truancy

Physical symptoms:

  • Burns from playing with fire
  • Sexually transmitted diseases from engaging in risky sexual behaviors
  • Injuries obtained from physical altercations

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor impulse control
  • Poor concentration capabilities
  • Having an intellect that is below average

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Lack of patience
  • Excessive agitation and irritability
  • Lacks a sense of guilt
  • Lacks remorse
  • Possesses a false sense of grandiosity
  • Lacks empathy


Effects of conduct disorder

When the symptoms of conduct disorder are allowed to persist without appropriate therapeutic interventions, the effects on an individual’s life can be devastating. Examples of such effects may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • School suspension or expulsion
  • Academic failure
  • Problems in work adjustment
  • Job loss / chronic unemployment
  • Financial hardships
  • Legal difficulties
  • Contraction of sexually transmitted diseases or experiencing an unplanned pregnancy due to engaging in risky sexual behavior
  • Physical injuries as a result of acting out or aggressive behaviors
  • Onset of symptoms synonymous with other mental illnesses
  • Relationship problems
  • Discord within the family
  • Substance abuse and addiction

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

It is not uncommon for those suffering from conduct disorder to experience the symptoms of other mental illnesses simultaneously. Unfortunately, those who suffer from conduct disorder in addition to another disorder frequently experience worse outcomes. Examples of disorders that frequently co-occur alongside conduct disorder include:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Specific learning disorder

I now am on the road to recovery because of the process groups and my personal therapist at Southcoast. Thank you for helping me get my life together. I am forever grateful!

– Anonymous Client
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