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Mental Health and Conduct Disorder

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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.

How Common Is Conduct Disorder?

It is estimated that 2%-16% of children in the U.S. have conduct disorder. It is more common in boys than in girls and most often occurs in late childhood or the early teen years.

How Is Conduct Disorder Diagnosed?

As with adults, mental illnesses in children are diagnosed based on signs and symptoms that suggest a particular problem. If symptoms of conduct disorder are present, the doctor may begin an evaluation by performing complete medical and psychiatric histories.  A physical exam and laboratory tests (for example, neuroimaging studies, blood tests) may be appropriate if there is concern that a physical illness might be causing the symptoms. The doctor will also look for signs of other disorders that often occur along with conduct disorder, such as ADHD and depression.

If the doctor cannot find a physical cause for the symptoms, he or she will likely refer the child to a child and adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses in children and teens. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a child for a mental disorder. The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on reports of the child's symptoms and his or her observation of the child's attitudes and behavior. The doctor will often rely on reports from the child's parents, teachers, and other adults because children may withhold information or otherwise have trouble explaining their problems or understanding their symptoms.

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