Conduct Disorder Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Often times the signs of conduct disorder can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of conduct disorder.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn about conduct disorder

Distinguished by behaviors that violate age-appropriate norms, conduct disorder is a mental health condition that be extremely disruptive to a youth’s life. With symptoms that typically become apparent during childhood, this mental illness can cause a young person to be vindictive, hostile, impulsive, or overtly aggressive towards others and property. Additionally, those that struggle with this disorder often have a great deal of difficulty interpreting the words and actions of others as non-hostile, which ultimately results in the aforementioned behaviors.

Allowing symptoms of conduct disorder to remain present without therapeutic intervention can elicit a number of detrimental effects that can jeopardize a youth’s current and future well-being. Youth with untreated conduct disorder often receive disciplinary action at school, have interaction with law enforcement, experience peer rejection and discord with family members and other loved ones. Furthermore, and often because of these effects, individuals who battle conduct disorder are at an increased risk for substance abuse and the development of other mental health disorders that can greatly affect development and healthy functioning in adulthood.

Effective treatment that addresses the symptoms of conduct disorder can drastically reduce the likelihood of these effects and instill skills needed to function in a healthy and pro-social manner. Furthermore, treatment for this condition can help those who grapple with conduct disorder symptoms learn how behavior impacts their lives and develop new tools for managing impulses for engaging in problematic behaviors, actions, or responses.


Conduct disorder statistics

Conduct disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses diagnosed among young people. While it is more prevalent among male youth, this disorder affects nearly 4% of all children and adolescents. Additionally, research has concluded that this mental health condition is diagnosed more often in young people who reside in urban settings.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for conduct disorder

Mental health professionals and developmental specialists agree that one’s genes and physiological makeup, along with environmental influences, can cause symptoms of conduct disorder to manifest. In addition to other listed risk factors, the following elaborations expand upon the beliefs held by those proficient in the field of mental health:

Genetic: A number of studies have been conducted to see if conduct disorder has any genetic origin. What these studies have found is that those who meet diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder often have a family history of the condition as well. Furthermore, this same research has discovered that those with a family history of other mental illnesses, such a depression, bipolar disorder, or certain personality disorders, have an increased chance for displaying signs and symptoms of conduct disorder at some point. In summary, it can be said that conduct disorder is a heritable mental health condition.

Physical: When conduct disorder is a factor in a person’s life, there are a few physiological changes that are known to occur. For example, neuroimaging has revealed that individuals who are battling conduct disorder display structural changes in their frontal lobes. The frontal lobe is the area of the brain that is responsible for the formation of a person’s personality and emotions. Therefore, when this area of the brain is altered, the result is often the inability to express emotions effectively or feel empathy towards others.

Environmental: Some professionals in the field of mental health believe that conduct disorder can be triggered by certain environmental influences. For example, if a young person is exposed to ongoing violence, trauma, abuse, and/or neglect, there is an increased risk for the symptoms of this mental health condition to appear. Additionally, developmental specialists have speculated that negative interactions with caregivers, especially with caregivers who have a history of criminal activity, can lead to the manifestation of conduct disorder symptoms as well.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Family history of mental illness or illnesses
  • Personal history of a mental illness or illnesses
  • Exposure to trauma or violence
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Exposure to abuse and/or neglect
  • Prior history of institutional living
  • Family history of interaction with the legal system
  • Residing in an urban area

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder

If a person experiences symptoms synonymous with conduct disorder early in life, it is likely that the symptoms present will be more severe. Conversely, if an individual experiences symptom onset later in life, symptoms could be milder. The following behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms are cornerstone to conduct disorder and may be observable to others in the sufferer’s life:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Property damage
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Bullying
  • Rape / sexual assault
  • Truancy
  • Engaging in criminal activity
  • Unwarranted emotional outbursts
  • Aggression

Physical symptoms:

  • Burns that occur as a result of fire-starting
  • Injuries due to overtly aggressive behaviors
  • Presence of sexually transmitted diseases or infections

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor intellect
  • Hindered ability to make good decisions
  • Inability to concentrate

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Lack of guilt
  • Irritability
  • Lack of remorse
  • Poor regard for people and/or property
  • Decline in self-esteem


Effects of conduct disorder

If the symptoms of conduct disorder persist, it is likely that a sufferer of this mental illness will experience a number of adverse effects as a result. The following are examples of such effects, of which could be prevented if a person receives treatment for this mental health condition:

  • Disciplinary action at school or work
  • Hindered academic functioning
  • Impaired occupational functioning
  • Increased interaction with the legal system
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Early experimentation with sex
  • Increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases
  • Substance use and/or abuse, which could lead to addiction or dependence
  • The development of another mental illness

Co-Occurring Disorders

Conduct disorder and co-occurring disorders

As with other mental health conditions, conduct disorder is commonly diagnosed alongside other mental illnesses. In many cases, the symptoms of conduct disorder can trigger the onset of another mental health disorder and vice versa. The listed disorders are those that are often present at the same time as conduct disorder:

  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Specific learning disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Communication disorders
What Past Clients Say

I came here during the worst time of my life. I had so much anxiety coming in but the girls in the admissions area were so pleasant and answered all my questions. The hospital was clean and staff were friendly and helpful on the unit. The medicine they gave me helped so much, and I finally feel like myself again. If you’re willing to participate and go to all the groups, you will get something out of the program. I went right from inpatient to their day program for a week afterwards, and that helped me stay focused too.

– Alumni
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