Causes & Effects of Conduct Disorder

At San Jose Behavioral Health, we believe education is an important first step in the effort to manage conduct disorder. Understanding the signs, symptoms, and effects of conduct disorder can help you get the right type and level of care for yourself or a loved one.

Understanding Conduct Disorder

Learn About Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is a diagnosis given to individuals who have shown a consistent pattern of violating rules and the rights of others. This disorder causes an individual to disregard norms and rules that are commonly accepted in society for that person’s age. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) the behavior associated with this disorder breaks down into four categories:

  • Destruction of property
  • Theft or deceitfulness
  • Violation of rules and laws
  • Aggression that causes or threatens harm to people or animals

People who have this disorder often engage in behavior from each of these categories. Sometimes the individual acts out one type of behavior more than others. In order to be diagnosable, these behaviors must occur in a variety of times and places and will cause strain, difficulty and conflict in the life of the individual and his or her family. This disorder is often so severe that it impairs the individual’s ability to engage in social situations, complete education or maintain a career.

In many cases, this disorder is first diagnosed in children. Over time, it becomes more severe as the person ages. Many doctors and psychologists specify when this disorder first began when they create a diagnosis. Childhood onset conduct disorder may begin as early as 10 years of age. In some cases, this disorder is not diagnosed until adulthood.

Conduct disorder may also include a lack of guilt or remorse. It may cause the individual to be unconcerned about the emotions of other people or to present a dull or flat affect. Sometimes these individuals are not even concerned about being punished for their actions.

There are serious long-term effects of untreated conduct disorder. This condition will eventually impact an individual’s goals, relationships, wellness, and even his or her freedom. Fortunately, treatment is possible and many individuals are able to overcome these negative behaviors associated with conduct disorder and see improvement.


Conduct Disorder Statistics

The American Psychological Association states that conduct disorder may impact between 2% and 10% of the U.S. population. Other sources put the prevalence of conduct disorder at about 4% of the population. Researchers believe that women are not affected by this disorder as often as men are. This disorder can impact individuals of all ethnicities, races, and cultures.

Causes & Risks

Causes and Risk Factors of Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder, like many other mental health disorders, is most likely caused by a number of factors, both genetic and environmental. Some of the risk-factors associated with an increased chance of being diagnosed with conduct disorder include:

Genetic: Individuals with family members who have been diagnosed with conduct disorder or another mental health disorder have a higher chance of being diagnosed with this disorder as well. While not genetic, this disorder may also be tied to physiological conditions, such as low verbal IQ.

Environmental: Childhood experiences often play into this disorder. Neglect, rejection, chaotic living, abuse, changes in caregivers, and parent substance use are all linked to development of conduct disorder. In adults and older adolescents, peer rejection, unhealthy social networks, and community violence have been linked to the development of this disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Male gender
  • Institutionalization as a child or adult
  • Parental criminality
  • Substance use disorders in the family
  • Abuse experience
  • Chaotic home life or frequent moves during childhood

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Conduct Disorder

The symptoms and appearance of conduct disorder, which may change as an individual ages, include the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Harming or threatening others with weapons or brutality
  • Shoplifting or theft of property
  • Setting fires
  • Refusal to comply with job or school requirements
  • Abusing animals, children, or romantic partners
  • Destruction of property
  • Does not tell the truth
  • Bullies, threatens, or intimidates other people
  • Initiates or quickly gets involved in fights
  • Has sexually assaulted another person through either force or coercion

Physical symptoms:

  • Has scratches, bruises, or burns from destroying property
  • Has sexually transmitted diseases from dangerous sexual behavior
  • Has illnesses or injuries that go untreated

Cognitive symptoms:

  • In some cases, has below-average intelligence
  • Has little or no ability to control impulses
  • Lowered ability to understand emotions
  • Lower ability to concentrate on tasks

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • No empathy or little empathy for others
  • Agitation or irritability
  • May show a sense of entitlement or grandiosity
  • Limited patience skills
  • Limited understanding of social cues

Lasting Effects

Effects of Conduct Disorder

Without treatment, this disorder can destroy relationships and life quality. It may even land the affected individual in jail. The following are among the potential consequences of untreated conduct disorder:

  • Family violence and conflicts
  • Increased community violence
  • Conflict with loved ones
  • Financial strain
  • Job loss or expulsion from school
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Arrests or jail sentences
  • Injury from fights or violence
  • Difficulty obtaining a job
  • Substance dependence and substance use

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders

As with many mental health conditions, conduct disorder may exist alongside other mental health disorders. Some examples of co-occurring disorders that often impact people with conduct disorder include the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Substance use disorders

My daughter was behaving poorly and no amount punishment seemed to matter. We consulted with a professional and they recommended we admit her at San Jose for conduct disorder treatment. She has improved remarkedly and our family is very relieved.

– Steve J.