Children with conduct disorder have a tough time being socially acceptable, respecting others’ rights, following rules, and demonstrating empathy. Their actions are troubling and go taunting, bullying, or outbursts. Co-occurring mental illnesses may be present, and without therapeutic interventions, behaviors and mental well-being could deteriorate. Thus, it is vital for parents to know how to best help and support their child with this condition.

What is conduct disorder in children?

Conduct disorder is a severe emotional and behavioral condition. It is a collection of mental and behavioral issues characterized by a blatant and callous disregard for others and social norms. An affected child may exhibit a habit of violent and disruptive actions and have trouble adhering to regulations. They may also engage in physical violence and display extreme anger.

While children and teenagers frequently experience issues with their behavior at various stages of development, conduct disorder is different. This condition is persistent, and the impact infringes on the rights of others, and upsets the child’s school and family life. All racial, cultural, and socioeconomic groups can have children with conduct disorders, although it is more prevalent in boys than girls. Generally, there are existing mental health problems, which accelerates the emergence and intensity of symptoms.

Conduct disorder symptoms in children

Symptoms of childhood conduct disorder can manifest before the age of 10, but usually develop between 10 – 19 years of age. Early symptoms may manifest in the form of punching, pushing, and biting other people. Conduct disorder in adolescents can lead to more serious situations that involve fighting, animal cruelty, arson, stealing, and vandalism. They also find satisfaction in being violent, dishonest, or coercive.

If you observe more than one of the following behaviors in your child, it will be beneficial to have them tested. While behavioral issues may occasionally be seen in youngsters, the difference with conduct disorder is the frequency and intensity of their actions and how it affects their everyday functioning.

  • Aggressive behaviors include physical hostility, brutality, bullying, trespassing, dishonesty, and delinquency.
  • Destructive conduct such as vandalism and arson.
  • Irresponsible sexual activity and drug use.
  • Not feeling and expressing empathy, emotion, or remorse.
  • A disdain for rules and authority.

If the behavior persists into maturity, the person is likely to run into legal issues, consistently violate the rights of others, and be given an antisocial personality disorder diagnosis. It can also trigger the onset of mood, anxiety, or other mental health issues.

What can cause conduct disorder in children?

There is no one specific reason that causes conduct disorder in children. Various contributing factors can increase the risk of developing the condition, which include biological makeup, genetics, traumatic experiences, and societal issues.   

  • Biological makeup resulting in chemical imbalances.
  • Experiencing parental neglect or rejection.
  • Being diagnosed with other psychiatric disorders.
  • Biological parents with a mental health disorder.
  • Living in poverty and poor nutrition.
  • Maternal psychopathology.
  • Inconsistent and austere discipline.
  • Exposure to violence.
  • Being a victim of abuse.

How can conduct disorder be diagnosed?

Conduct disorder can be identified by a child psychiatrist or other certified mental health professional who will observe the child’s behavior and discuss the child’s conduct with the parents. The child may undergo a psychiatric evaluation as conduct disorder shares characteristics with a number of prevalent childhood psychiatric disorders, and comorbid conditions may be present.

Are there any treatment options?

Treatment may be challenging when the child refuses to cooperate with others but with positive reinforcement and persistence, it is possible to achieve good outcomes. Treatment options include family and individual psychotherapy.

Therapy encourages healthy behavior modification, enhances problem-solving and reasoning skills, and helps the child learn how to control their emotions and impulses. Since it takes time to develop new attitudes and behavior patterns, treatments are rarely brief. Medications may be used to manage symptoms associated with existing mental illnesses.

When should you take your child to a child psychiatrist?

If your child is consistently engaging in violent, dishonest, or destructive behavior and displaying extreme emotions over a period of time, then you may want to seek help from a mental health professional. Any behaviors and actions that are concerning, harmful, and abnormal need early inventions. A timely diagnosis and thorough treatment can greatly enhance your child’s prognosis.

Parenting a child with conduct disorder

It can be utterly daunting and exhausting having a child with conduct disorder. It can leave parents feeling defeated and worn out having to deal with ongoing mayhem, but using a few simple strategies can help parents cope and better support their child:

  • Educate yourself and the family on the child’s diagnosis as it gives greater insight into aggressive and disruptive behaviors.
  • Set non-negotiable rules and expectations and make penalties crystal clear. Keep the list short but focused on specific behaviors that are particularly challenging.
  • Be patient with and available to your child. Regardless of how unruly and disruptive they have been, it is important to still try to connect with them and give them praise where possible.
  • Always maintain consistency and follow through even in those moments when it is hard to maintain your composure in the face of your child’s explosive fury.
  • Investigate therapy options where the child’s and family’s specific requirements are considered while designing the treatment plan.
  • Be actively involved in family therapy to enhance interactions and communication between family members.

What is the prognosis for conduct disorder? 

The outlook for conduct disorder depends on how early the condition developed and if it was treated. In some cases, children may outgrow the condition, but treatment works to support parents and the child while helping to resolve underlying problems, and prevent the worsening of symptoms. Treatment also helps reduce the risk of developing other mental health illnesses such as antisocial personality disorder, depression, and addictions.

There is no guaranteed way to prevent children from developing conduct disorder, but if parents use positive strategies in a safe and loving home, it creates closer family bonds. Studies show there is less chance of children developing this condition when raised in a stable and nurturing home.