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Conduct Disorder: Understanding the Spectrum of Behaviour in Children

November 09, 2023

For many of us, raising children is an endeavour filled with moments that may make you think: “Is this just a phase?” You know the ones — those times when our children test boundaries, pushing the limits of what's considered “typical” childhood behaviour. But how do we distinguish between this expected testing of boundaries and a potential mental health condition like conduct disorder? 


Let's dive in and unravel the nuances of this disorder so we can gain the insights necessary to provide the right support for the children who need it. 

Is your child acting out, or is there more to it?

Understanding this important question can make a significant difference in helping your child navigate their emotions and behaviours. Conduct disorder is a complex mental health condition that affects a child's behaviour, often characterized by persistent patterns of antisocial, deceitful and aggressive actions towards others or themselves. 


Children with this condition may find it hard to follow rules and guidelines and may act in ways that aren’t socially acceptable —perhaps they can be destructive or violent. 


Conduct disorder can be classified into three main types: childhood onset, adolescent onset and unspecified onset. 


Childhood onset: Children with this type exhibit symptoms of conduct disorder before the age of 10. 


Adolescent onset: In this type, symptoms of conduct disorder appear during adolescence, after the age of 10. 


Unspecified onset: The age at which conduct disorder first occurs is unknown.


It most often occurs between the ages of eight and 16, however, symptoms can also emerge in early childhood and into the late teens.


It’s not totally clear what causes conduct disorder, but there are many factors that are thought to contribute to its development. Those include

  • Genetics
  • Biological factors (like temperament and cognitive development)
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Social/peer influence

Conduct disorder is multifaceted, and its development may also be shaped by socio-economic factors like poverty, subpar schooling environments, community challenges, family disruptions and/or insufficient supervision.

What kind of behaviour should I look out for?

Identifying conduct disorder in a child involves recognizing a pattern of behaviour that goes beyond “typical” childhood misbehavior. While symptoms will vary between individuals, there are four main categories of behaviour:



  • Threatening behaviour
  • Violence or hostile behaviour
  • Bullying
  • Cruelty toward people or animals
  • Sexual assault, rape or molestation


  • Vandalizing or destroying property
  • Setting fires


  • Repeated lying
  • Theft
  • Manipulation

Violations of rules: 

  • Running away
  • Not attending school
  • Mischief or pranks
  • Very early sexual activity

Individuals with this disorder may have difficulty expressing empathy or remorse, demonstrating emotion toward others, as well as performing well in school. 


Understanding these signs is the first step in seeking professional help and support for your child. A child psychiatrist or mental health professional can work with you, your child’s teachers and doctors to diagnose conduct disorder.


To be diagnosed, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition, children or adolescents must display a minimum of three symptoms in the past 12 months, with a minimum of one symptom occurring withing the past six months.


Can conduct disorder be treated?

Early intervention and appropriate treatment are critical for effectively managing conduct disorder. Just as symptoms vary, so can treatment. It can depend on a child’s age, their overall health, and the severity of their symptoms. Long-term treatment may be required. 


A comprehensive approach may involve:


Therapy: Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is often beneficial, teaching the child coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills and ways to manage their emotions and behaviour.


Family therapy: Involving the family in the treatment process can improve communication and provide a supportive environment for the child.


Medication: In some cases, medication might be prescribed to manage specific symptoms or co-occurring conditions. 


School involvement or peer groups: The involvement of the school or community helps to create a positive environment and may promote socially acceptable behaviour. 


As a parent, how can I support my child?


Supporting a child with conduct disorder requires patience, understanding and consistent effort. Often, tough discipline doesn’t work to correct antisocial behaviour. [KM1] [GU2] 


Here are some strategies that may be helpful:


Take part in family therapy as you’re needed.


Ensure your child makes it to appointments. Do your best to make sure you keep all healthcare and mental health care appointments.


Work with your community. Collaborate with healthcare providers and your child’s school to ensure you’re working together to support your child’s treatment plan.


Seek support: Reach out to mental health professionals who may be able to help you when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Seeking support groups with other parents of children with conduct disorder may be helpful.


Remember, early intervention and a supportive environment play vital roles in helping children with conduct disorder develop into well-adjusted adults.


In the rollercoaster ride of parenting, it's easy to question whether your child's behaviour is just a passing phase or something more complex. Understanding the signs of conduct disorder and differentiating them from childhood antics can be the first step towards providing the right support. 


As a parent, it’s not your job to have all the answers; it's about being there, learning and adapting with your child. By being attuned to your child's needs and seeking professional guidance when necessary, you're not just parenting, you're fully supporting them on their journey of mental wellbeing and resilience.


If you need help addressing mental health challenges, visit to be set up with the right support for you.