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Conduct disorder

Definition

Conduct disorder is a disorder of childhood and adolescence that involves chronic behavior problems, such as:

  • Defiant, impulsive, or antisocial behavior
  • Drug use
  • Criminal activity

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Conduct disorder has been associated with:

  • Child abuse
  • Family conflicts
  • Genetic defects
  • Parental drug addiction or alcoholism
  • Poverty

The diagnosis is more common among boys.

It is hard to know how common the disorder is, because many of the qualities necessary to make the diagnosis (such as "defiance" and "rule breaking") can be hard to define. For an accurate diagnosis, the behavior must be far more extreme than simple adolescent rebellion or boyish exuberance.

Conduct disorder is often associated with attention-deficit disorder. Both conditions carry a major risk for alcohol and/or other drug dependence.

Conduct disorder also can be an early sign of depression or bipolar disorder.

Children with conduct disorder tend to be impulsive, difficult to control, and unconcerned about the feelings of others.

Symptoms

  • Antisocial behaviors, such as bullying and fighting
  • Breaking rules without apparent reason
  • Cruel or aggressive behavior toward people and animals (fights, using dangerous weapons, forced sexual activity, mugging, or purse snatching)
  • Destruction of property (deliberately setting fires, breaking and entering, destroying other people's property)
  • Heavy drinking and/or heavy illicit drug use
  • Lying to get a favor or avoid obligations
  • Running away
  • Truancy (beginning before age 13)
  • Vandalism

Signs and tests

Some of the common signs of conduct disorder are:

  • Bullying
  • Fighting
  • Staying out at night without concern for curfew or other limits

These children often make no effort to hide their aggressive behaviors and have difficulty making close friends. The diagnosis is made based on a history of these kinds of behaviors.

Treatment

Successful treatment requires close involvement of the child's family. Parents can learn techniques to help manage their child's problem behavior.

In cases of abuse, the child may need to be removed from the family and placed in a less chaotic environment. Treatment with medications or talk therapy may be used for depression and attention-deficit disorder, which commonly accompany conduct disorder.

Many "behavioral modification" schools, "wilderness programs," and "boot camps" are sold to parents as solutions for conduct disorder. These may use a form of "attack therapy" or "confrontation," which can actually be harmful. There is no research support for such techniques. Research suggests that treating children at home, along with their families, is more effective.

If you are considering an inpatient program, be sure to check it out thoroughly. Serious injuries and deaths have been associated with some programs. They are not regulated in many states.

Expectations (prognosis)

Children who have severe or frequent symptoms tend to have the poorest outlook. Expectations are also worse for those who have other illnesses, such as mood and drug abuse disorders.

Complications

Children with conduct disorder may go on to develop personality disorders as adults, particularly antisocial personality disorder. As their behaviors worsen, these individuals may also develop significant drug and legal problems. Depression and bipolar disorder may develop in adolescence and early adulthood.

Calling your health care provider

See your health care provider if your child:

  • Continually gets in trouble
  • Has mood swings
  • Is bullying others
  • Is being victimized
  • Seems to be overly aggressive

Early treatment may help.

Prevention

The sooner the treatment for conduct disorder is started, the more likely the child will learn adaptive behaviors and prevent some of the potential complications.

References

Conduct disorder. In: Moore DP, Jefferson JW. Handbook of Medical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby; 2004:chap 24.

Thomas CR. Evidence-based practice for conduct disorder symptoms. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2006;45:109-114.

Whittinger NS. Clinical precursors of adolescent conduct disorder in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007;46:179-187.


Review Date: 1/15/2009
Reviewed By: Christos Ballas, MD, Attending Psychiatrist, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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