While it can be common for children and teenagers to have issues with behaviour during their development, a lengthy pattern of disruptive or violent behaviour that negatively affects everyday life and harms others can be the sign of conduct disorder, requiring therapy.
The symptoms of conduct disorder can vary depending on each individual child. The seriousness of the disorder can be graded in levels; mild, moderate, and severe.
The main symptoms of conduct disorder can include:
Violation of rules: This sees the child act against widely accepted social rules or engaging in inappropriate behaviour for their age. This includes skipping school, being sexually active at a young age, using drugs or alcohol, or running away from home.
Aggressiveness: This sees the child engaging in behaviour that threaten or cause physical harm to others. This includes bullying, fighting, use of weapons, cruelty to animals, or forcing others into sexual activity.
Destructive behaviour: This sees the child engaging in vandalism or the intentional destruction of property, including arson.
Deceitful behaviour: This sees the child stealing from others and compulsively lying.
Children with conduct disorder may have low self-esteem and frequently throw tantrums or remain irritable.
Some children with conduct disorder may be unable to see how their behaviour harms others and may have little remorse for their actions.
Conduct disorder is more common in boys than girls and often occurs during late childhood or early teenage years.
While the exact causes of conduct disorder remain unknown, a combination of biological, environmental, genetic and psychological factors can be seen to contribute.
Biological: Many children with conduct disorder can also have other mental ill health issues, including learning disorders, depression, attention deficit/hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), or anxiety disorders. Injuries or defects to the brain have also been explored as a contributing factor.
Environmental: A child who has experienced a dysfunctional home life may develop a conduct disorder. This can include experiences of trauma, childhood abuse, substance abuse, or poor discipline from adults.
Genetic: Children who have a close family member with a mental illness may be vulnerable to conduct disorder through genetics. This includes conditions such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or personality disorders.
Psychological: Research has suggested that children with conduct disorder may have a general lack of moral awareness and difficulties in cognitive processing.
A GP or mental health professional can evaluate a child through medical examination and assessment of their psychiatric history. Tests may be carried out to ensure that symptoms are not being caused by an underlying physical health problem. They will also be assessed for symptoms of other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD.
Once underlying physical illness or other mental health issues are ruled out, a child psychiatrist can conduct further assessments to diagnose conduct disorder. This may include interviews with the child and observation of the child’s behaviour and demeanour. A therapist may also wish to discuss the child’s symptoms with parents, teachers, or other adults the child has frequent contact with to build a bigger picture of their behaviours and emotions.
The treatment of conduct disorder can vary depending on each individual child. Factors including the severity of the child’s symptoms and the child’s age are often taken into account before a treatment plan is devised.
Psychotherapy is commonly used to treat conduct disorder and help children express and control their emotions in a healthy, appropriate way.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help individuals with conduct disorder challenge negative thoughts and establish alternative ways of thinking about the problems they may be facing. This can help the child improve their moral reasoning, impulse control, and problem solving skills.
Family therapy is often recommended to help loved ones understand the child’s condition and improve communication and interactions amongst family members.
Medication can also be prescribed in some cases. This pathway may be useful if the child is presenting with symptoms of further mental health issues, including depression or anxiety. Find out more about child therapy here.
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