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Mental Health and 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.

How Is Conduct Disorder Treated?

Treatment for conduct disorder is based on many factors, including the child's age, the severity of symptoms, as well as the child's ability to participate in and tolerate specific therapies. Treatment usually consists of a combination of the following:

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) is aimed at helping the child learn to express and control anger in more appropriate ways. A type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to reshape the child's thinking (cognition) to improve problem solving skills, anger management, moral reasoning skills, and impulse control. Family therapy may be used to help improve family interactions and communication among family members. A specialized therapy technique called parent management training (PMT) teaches parents ways to positively alter their child's behavior in the home.
  • Medication: Although there is no medication formally approved to treat conduct disorder, various drugs may be used to treat some of its distressing symptoms, as well as any other mental illnesses that may be present, such as ADHD or major depression.

What Is the Outlook for Children With Conduct Disorder?

If your child is displaying symptoms of conduct disorder, it is very important that you seek help from a qualified doctor. A child or teen with conduct disorder is at risk for developing other mental disorders as an adult if left untreated. These include antisocial and other personality disorders, mood or anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders.

Children with conduct disorder are also at risk for school-related problems, such as failing or dropping out, substance abuse, legal problems, injuries to self or others due to violent behavior, sexually transmitted diseases, and suicide. Treatment outcomes can vary greatly, but early intervention may help to reduce the risk for incarcerations, mood disorders, and the development of other comorbidities such as substance abuse.

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