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Mental Health and Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is a serious behavioral and emotional disorder that can occur in children and teens. A child with this disorder may display a pattern of disruptive and violent behavior and have problems following rules.

It is not uncommon for children and teens to have behavior-related problems at some time during their development. However, the behavior is considered to be a conduct disorder when it is long-lasting and when it violates the rights of others, goes against accepted norms of behavior and disrupts the child's or family's everyday life.

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What Are the Symptoms of Conduct Disorder?

Symptoms of conduct disorder vary depending on the age of the child and whether the disorder is mild, moderate, or severe. In general, symptoms of conduct disorder fall into four general categories:

  • Aggressive behavior: These are behaviors that threaten or cause physical harm and may include fighting, bullying, being cruel to others or animals, using weapons, and forcing another into sexual activity.
  • Destructive behavior: This involves intentional destruction of property such as arson (deliberate fire-setting) and vandalism (harming another person's property).
  • Deceitful behavior: This may include repeated lying, shoplifting, or breaking into homes or cars in order to steal.
  • Violation of rules: This involves going against accepted rules of society or engaging in behavior that is not appropriate for the person's age. These behaviors may include running away, skipping school, playing pranks, or being sexually active at a very young age.

In addition, many children with conduct disorder are irritable, have low self-esteem, and tend to throw frequent temper tantrums. Some may abuse drugs and alcohol. Children with conduct disorder often are unable to appreciate how their behavior can hurt others and generally have little guilt or remorse about hurting others.

What Causes Conduct Disorder?

The exact cause of conduct disorder is not known, but it is believed that a combination of biological, genetic, environmental, psychological, and social factors play a role.

  • Biological: Some studies suggest that defects or injuries to certain areas of the brain can lead to behavior disorders. Conduct disorder has been linked to particular brain regions involved in regulating behavior, impulse control, and emotion. Conduct disorder symptoms may occur if nerve cell circuits along these brain regions do not work properly.  Further, many children and teens with conduct disorder also have other mental illnesses, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disorders, depression, substance abuse, or an anxiety disorder, which may contribute to the symptoms of conduct disorder.
  • Genetics: Many children and teens with conduct disorder have close family members with mental illnesses, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders and personality disorders. This suggests that a vulnerability to conduct disorder may be at least partially inherited.
  • Environmental: Factors such as a dysfunctional family life, childhood abuse, traumatic experiences, a family history of substance abuse, and inconsistent discipline by parents may contribute to the development of conduct disorder.
  • Psychological: Some experts believe that conduct disorders can reflect problems with moral awareness (notably, lack of guilt and remorse) and deficits in cognitive processing.
  • Social: Low socioeconomic status and not being accepted by their peers appear to be risk factors for the development of conduct disorder.

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