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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 may 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.

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, kill animals, 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 full 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. Involving school staff such as school psychologists, counselors, and teachers is central to coordinated care. Certain medicines may also help ease symptoms of conduct disorder. Many children with conduct disorder also have a second mental health problem that may be treated with medicine.  

The earlier treatment begins, including appropriate medicines, the better for the child. Untreated aggressive behavior becomes more difficult to change as a child gets older.

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. Stay in close contact with school staff. Ask them and your child's medical treatment team for support. The school staff and the medical team may also know of parent or family support groups that may be helpful to both parents and siblings as well.

What to watch for

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

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2019
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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