About conduct disorder
Conduct disorder is a serious mental health disorder.
Children and teenagers with conduct disorder behave in extremely challenging ways. For example, they act aggressively, hurt other people, break serious rules, and steal or destroy things. This behaviour makes it hard for them to do ordinary things like go to school and get along well with family members, friends, peers and teachers.
Conduct disorder can start at as early as the preschool years, but it can also start during adolescence.
Signs of conduct disorder
Children with conduct disorder behave in extremely challenging ways. Their behaviour:
- interferes with daily activities and relationships
- happens very often
- goes on over a long period – for example, 6-12 months.
Children with conduct disorder behave in several of the following ways. They:
- act aggressively and hurt others – for example, they’re violent towards parents, siblings or teachers, or they use weapons
- are physically cruel to animals or kill animals
- force people into sexual activity
- break serious rules – for example, they sneak out of the house, stay out late, run away from home or truant
- steal things and behave dishonestly – for example, they lie or steal money from family members, break into houses, steal cars, scam others or shoplift
- destroy things – for example, they set fire to things or destroy public property.
Children with conduct disorder might also:
- blame others for their behaviour
- see other people’s behaviour as threatening towards them, even when it isn’t
- seem irritable or easily frustrated
- have temper outbursts
- do risky things like have unprotected sex, train surf or use alcohol and other drugs
- self-harm or attempt suicide.
Concerned about conduct disorder: getting a diagnosis
If you’re concerned that your child might have conduct disorder, talk to your GP as soon as possible.
The GP will be able to give you a referral to a paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist with expertise in extreme childhood behaviour. These health professionals can assess your child and diagnose conduct disorder.
The diagnosis process might include interviews with you, your child and other people in your child’s life, like teachers. Your health professional might observe your child’s behaviour and get you to do some questionnaires.
Your child might also need a speech and language assessment, academic assessment or intellectual assessment.
Health professionals might also assess your child for other conditions that often occur alongside conduct disorder, like oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), childhood depression, teenage depression, childhood anxiety and teenage anxiety.
Professional treatment and support for conduct disorder
If your child has been diagnosed with conduct disorder, professional treatment and support is essential. It will involve a management plan for your child.
The management plan will aim to help your child:
- learn healthy ways to communicate with others
- build social skills and friendship skills
- develop healthy relationships and community networks
- manage their behaviour, emotions and stress
- sort out conflict constructively and see things from other people’s perspectives
- attend school regularly, learn and be safe.
It should also include strategies for managing your child’s behaviour and encouraging positive behaviour, both at home and school. Your child’s health professionals will talk with you, your family members and your child’s teachers about these strategies.
As part of the management plan, your child’s health professionals might recommend treatment for any other conditions your child has.
The management plan will also include support for you and other people in your child’s life. This support will help you understand the causes of your child’s behaviour and stay connected with your child so they feel secure and loved.
Looking after yourself when your child has conduct disorder
Guiding children and teenagers with conduct disorder towards new ways of behaving is a big and important job. If you look after yourself mentally, physically and emotionally, you’re more likely to have the energy you need to stay calm and respond to your child in warm and positive ways.
Looking after yourself involves:
- making sure you have a support network
- managing stress, anger or mental health problems
- making time for things you enjoy
- practising self-compassion, which means being kind to yourself even when things aren’t going well
- looking after your physical health by eating well and staying physically active and trying to rest when you can.
Sharing support, advice and experiences with other parents can be a big help. You could try starting a conversation in an online forum or joining a parent support group.
Looking after siblings of children with conduct disorder
It’s important to keep an eye on siblings who might be affected by your child’s challenging behaviour or by any conflict or violence that’s happening in your home. If your other children are distressed or you think their mental health is being affected, talk with your GP or another health professional as soon as possible.
You can help your other children feel safe, secure and loved by:
- encouraging them to share their feelings about their sibling and letting them know their feelings are valid
- spending special one-on-one time with them
- having clear rules and expectations about acceptable behaviour in your home – for example, it’s never OK to hit another person.
It’s also important to develop a safety plan. A safety plan can cover things like:
- what to do if a sibling is behaving in an extreme way – for example, speak calmly, go somewhere safe and so on
- where to go – for example, safe places at home or other places
- who can help – for example, a neighbour who can call police if they hear violence or friends who can collect your other children.
It’s important to talk with your other children about the safety plan, so they know where to go, who to call for help and how to call 000. You might need to adapt what you say for children of different ages.
Teenage violence in the home is never OK. If you or your other children are experiencing violence in your home, talk to your health professional, call the National Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or use the 1800RESPECT online chat service.
Risk factors for conduct disorder
It’s hard to say why children develop conduct disorder. But it might be a combination of genes and environmental factors.
Some risk factors linked to conduct disorder include temperament or extreme stress or trauma that affects children’s relationships with their family or community. This trauma might include being exposed to neighbourhood violence or being abused. It might also include having a parent who uses harsh discipline, has problematic alcohol and other drug use or has a mental illness.