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Conduct Disorder in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 3, 2023.

What is conduct disorder?

Conduct disorder means a child's behavior is physically and verbally aggressive toward other people or property. A child with conduct disorder acts out in a way that is not appropriate for his or her age. The behaviors are repetitive and often start at a young age and worsen over time. A child with conduct disorder often has other mental health conditions, such as depression, ADHD, or learning disabilities. Conduct disorder is more common in boys than in girls.

What increases my child's risk for conduct disorder?

  • Abusive parents or parents who punish harshly
  • Parental neglect, lack of family involvement, or a family that fights often
  • Parental divorce and parental conflict after the divorce
  • Parental drug or alcohol abuse
  • Lack of home rules and little or no supervision in the home
  • Inability to communicate or interact appropriately in a social setting
  • Living in poor conditions

What specific behaviors are common with conduct disorder?

Your child may do any of the following:

  • Act out aggressively with rage or act like he or she does not care about anything
  • Act out sexually or commit sexual assault
  • Lie to get his or her way or try to explain behavior so he or she does not get in trouble
  • Not follow directions at home or school or get poor grades in school
  • Run away from home, stay out past curfew, or skip school
  • Start fights, bully others, use a weapon to hurt another person, or hurt animals
  • Steal from others or destroy other people's property, including breaking into homes or starting fires

How is conduct disorder diagnosed?

A diagnosis of conduct disorder may not occur until your child is 10 to 14 years of age. Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's behavior. Teachers, child care providers, and other family members may also be asked about the behavior. The provider will ask how long the behavior has been happening, and how often. The provider will ask about behavior in the past 12 months. The provider may rule out conditions that can cause behavior problems, such as poor nutrition or a medical problem. Your child may be asked questions about his or her home life. He or she may be asked about any past abuse that happened to him or her. Your child may be asked if he or she has thoughts of self-harm or of harming others. Diagnosis is often confirmed if your child's behaviors get in the way of his or her functioning in society, school, or a job.

How is conduct disorder treated?

Your child may need to be removed from his or her home to receive treatment. Ask for more information about these and other treatments for conduct disorder:

  • Antidepressant medicine is given to treat depression and improve your child's mood.
  • Antipsychotic medicine is given to decrease aggressive behavior. The medicine may also keep your child from hurting himself or herself.
  • Behavior therapy is done to help your child learn new ways to react to situations. Your child may be rewarded for behavioral reactions that are positive.
  • Family therapy helps families develop coping skills and understand ways to improve behaviors. This may include adding more structure into your child's daily life with specific rules and actions to take if rules are not followed.
  • Skills therapy is done to help your child interact appropriately in social situations.

How can I help manage my child's behavior?

  • Do not allow exceptions to the rules. Set limits and tell your child what you expect from him or her. Keep your child on a schedule. Set bed and wake times, study times, and free time. Make sure everyone has your child follow the same rules. This includes babysitters, family members, and teachers.
  • Give your child positive feedback when earned. Positive words or rewards when your child follows rules will help promote good behaviors.
  • Have your child keep a diary. The diary can be used to write down feelings and reactions to situations. Your child can begin to better understand his or her own behavior and how to handle stressful situations.
  • Have your child take a time out for negative behavior. This will allow your child time to relax and rethink his or her behavior.
  • Monitor your child for alcohol and drug use. Talk to your child's healthcare provider if you think your child is using alcohol or drugs.
  • Talk to your child about safe sex. This may help decrease the risk for sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.
  • Help your child create healthy habits. Healthy habits include regular exercise, nutritious food, and regular sleep. Too little sleep, a lack of physical activity, or poor nutrition can trigger or worsen behavior problems. Have your child go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day. Offer healthy foods, such as vegetables, fruits, lean meats, whole-grain breads, and low-fat dairy products. Limit foods high in sugar, fat, or salt. Encourage your child to get at least 1 hour of physical activity every day.
    Family Walking for Exercise

Where can I find more information about conduct disorder?

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
    3615 Wisconsin Avenue NW
    Washington , DC 20016
    Phone: 1- 202 - 966-7300
    Web Address:
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Office of Science Policy, Planning, and Communications
    6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 6200, MSC 9663
    Bethesda , MD 20892-9663
    Phone: 1- 301 - 443-4513
    Phone: 1- 866 - 615-6464
    Web Address:

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • Your child talks about hurting himself or herself, or others.

When should I call my child's doctor?

  • Your child's aggression or other behaviors do not improve, even with treatment.
  • Your child does not sleep well or sleeps more than usual.
  • Your child will not eat or eats more than usual.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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