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BehavingConduct Problems

Is Your Child Breaking the Law?

Teen boy looking out a window.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 21 Apr 2022
Published 24 Feb 2022

What are Conduct Problems in Childhood?

Conduct problems in childhood are patterns of intentional rule-breaking and law-breaking behavior. 

These patterns are clinically known as Disruptive Behavior Disorder. Extreme behaviors or conduct problems are less likely to be diagnosed in childhood than in adolescence, but noticing and treating problematic conduct early can prevent later problems. 

Most often, environmental factors are a huge contributor to conduct problems. Inconsistent discipline or a family history of trauma can lead a child to act out as a cry for help. A child who bullies or intimidates others may have been bullied or threatened in their own life. Sometimes social norms are not maintained by some of the role models in a child’s life, and it can be confusing for that child as they try to figure out right versus wrong. 

In child development, children learn from behavior that others around them exhibit. Young children are sponges to the world around them, and if maladaptive behaviors are modeled, they can certainly learn those. 

Perhaps situations in your child’s life or environment have been really negative. You may feel that your child does not seem to have empathy or to show any concern for the feelings of others. 

Another factor in conduct problems may be impulse control issues. Perhaps your child acts without thinking and makes poor decisions leading to others getting hurt accidentally. Your child may seem to act without thinking, but you may notice a lot of remorse. Either way, behavioral therapy and family therapy can effectively treat these challenges. Parent training and support in implementing consistent structure and patterns of behavior management are critical. 

We must remember that children with extreme behavioral problems can be very challenging to parent. Caregivers need to seek support if they see their child bullying, intimidating, using physical cruelty, starting fires, hurting animals, or anything similar. Conduct can become very serious very quickly.

Symptoms of Conduct Problems in Children 

  • Extreme behaviors that appear to be intentional: your child starts fires, fights, or causes pain to others intentionally
  • Breaking the law: your child’s behavior has become so concerning that if caught law enforcement would be involved
  • Not trustworthy: your child is making choices that put themselves and others in harm regularly 
  • Consistently in the principal’s office: your child is disrupting the school environment and is continually in trouble 
  • Steals: your child is stealing from parents and other children 
  • Starts fights with other children: your child seeks revenge on other people 
  • Immune to consequences: your child is unable to understand cause and effect or unwilling to take ownership for the mistake 

Causes of Conduct Problems in Childhood 

Some of these behaviors may be related to trauma, attachment, behavior, mood, or a developmental disability.

Trauma: Consider whether abuse has occurred. Also, be sure you consider the consistency of relationships within the child’s life. When a child displays extreme behavior, a deep emotional trauma or abuse may be at the helm. Caregivers and clinicians should be careful not to miss physical, sexual, or emotional abuse cues.

Look for bruising, odd extreme behavior, frequent toileting accidents, or a drawing or play that has a very violent or sexualized quality. 

Sudden and drastic changes in behavior, hiding under furniture and refusing to come out, smearing feces, eating non-food items, spinning wildly, or rapidly switching from very friendly to angry and hostile in a short period of time are red flags for trauma or abuse.

If you see any of these red flags, seeking support from a mental health professional is very important. This child may likely be diagnosed with PTSD or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. It is crucial to get appropriate treatment if so. Untreated trauma can lead to anxiety disorders and personality disorders in adulthood, which can cause serious difficulty for an individual later in life.

Attachment: Disorganized attachment can also be at the root of extreme behaviors. This term means attachment to caregivers that is not secure, resulting in behavior that can be erratic or extreme.

The primary consideration for attachment problems is whether the child is consistently trusting. 

Secure attachment to a caregiver translates into trust in other relationships. 

Kids who are close to their moms and dads generally have close friends too. Children who are not securely attached can be extremely distant and disconnected or very inconsistent with their trust. These children may have been victims of abuse or suffered a long separation from their parents. 

Children who have been abandoned or have simply never connected with any parent or adult will likely have significant attachment problems. This issue is similar to the trauma profile discussed above and needs adolescent psychiatry and mental health treatment support.

Behavior: Behavior problems are also essential to assess here. In the absence of emotional symptoms, misbehavior that only serves to gain a reward or consequence could be Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or Conduct Disorder. The difference is that these disorders are defined as intentional without emotional roots. More often, the behavior has an underlying emotional cause, but it is also possible that there is not an emotional cause. Some children learn that they can break the rules and norms to get what they want. Sometimes these disorders co-occur with ADHD because impulse control plays a significant role in these children’s choices. 

Severe behavior problems will likely require intervention from a clinical professional, such as an Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) combined with parent training. Parents really need support to manage these kinds of challenges.

Mood: If emotional symptoms exist, like depressed mood, sleep difficulty, or lack of pleasure in life, determine whether depression or bipolar type symptoms might be present in addition to or separate from trauma and attachment mentioned above. 

Bipolar disorder includes a level of impulsivity that could make it appear as though your child does not care about rules or consequences. When a child acts impulsively, they may not be able to take the time to consider consequences.

Autism: It is possible but unlikely that your child may have some symptoms of autism. For example, some children who seem callous or abusive to others are simply not taking another person’s perspective.

A child with autism may expect too much of a baby sibling or be rough with your pet while only trying to play. 

What to Do about Conduct Problems in Childhood 

Seek Professional Help: These behaviors are extreme, and seeking professional help should be at the top of your list. Reach out to a psychologist, family therapist, or social worker who has expertise in parent training and a behavioral therapist who can help with consistency and structure. Always call 911 or visit the emergency room if you think someone (your child or someone else) is in danger.

You can also develop some proactive support at home. 

  1. Pick one or two behaviors you would like to change: target one or two of the most important behaviors to change. If you are targeting “hitting” and “destroying property,” reinforce “respect for the family” at home and “taking care of our things.”
  2. Reward these behaviors: with family activities, extra time to play outside, or a trip to a trampoline park or bike park. 
  3. Always have positive time with your child: positive time looks like playing a game and being present with your child, listening while showing and demonstrating positive emotions within yourself towards your child. You would do this every day despite misbehavior.
  4.  Do not provide attention for hitting and destroying things: if you need to move objects you do not want to be broken to a safe place or outside your home, do so when your child isn’t watching. When you provide negative attention to negative behavior, it reinforces the behavior. 
  5. Find time for closeness: Having a cup of hot cocoa and watching a favorite show, going for a walk, taking a drive to see the fall leaves, or enjoying a quiet dinner of your child’s favorite food can be provided at low cost and are not necessarily contingent on good behavior.
  6. Collaboration with school professionals, clinical therapists, and parents: can be the key to facilitating positive behavior in your child.
  7. When concerned about safety:  work to remove items that could harm others and stay close by to reinforce calming behavior.  Make sure you keep sharp knives or anything else dangerous under lock and key. Model a calm demeanor by deep breathing, sitting calmly (versus standing in a defensive posture), and looking out the window can help your child regain composure. Stay quiet, do not raise your voice or become elevated. If you begin to have serious concerns about safety, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.
  8. Seek out support for yourself: It may be helpful to see a therapist yourself. If you find it challenging to stay calm with your child, seek out support to help you learn tools for calming down. All of our emotions are OKAY; it is just how we respond. How you react to a child with conduct problems is essential. As adults, we sometimes need to learn tools to stay calm and centered. In doing so, you can avoid getting upset and further escalating the situation. 

When to Seek Help

If you are concerned about any of these behaviors, it is best to seek help immediately from a professional who has experience treating children with conduct problems. 

If your child is in school, it is generally a good idea to let the school counselor or psychologist know if your child has an incident of this nature. Collaboration with school professionals, clinical therapists, and parents can be the key to facilitating positive behavior in your child.

If you are worried about serious safety concerns, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room. 

Further Resources on Conduct Problems in Childhood 

  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat emotional symptoms, teach adaptive coping techniques, and practice social skills
  • ABA Therapist: to treat behavior, analyze the function of poor behavior, create appropriate systems for reinforcement of positive behavior, and to develop a home behavior management system. Also, to provide extensive parent training support.
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to conduct a full assessment to look at symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts
  • Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication for depression or bipolar, impulsivity, or aggressive behaviors

Similar Conditions to Conduct Problems in Childhood

  • Social Skills Problems: conduct problems can be related to difficulty with social perspective-taking, understanding what reactions are appropriate in a situation, and reading other people’s reactions
  • Emotional Problems: conduct problems such as the tendency to be irritable and explosive can be related to underlying feelings of sadness and depression
  • Suicidal Ideation: conduct problems can be related to dangerous behavior and suicidal thoughts. Take your child’s statements seriously and seek help immediately if they talk about death or suicide. If you have immediate risk, think your child has a plan, or have worries about safety, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room. You or your child may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number at 1-800-273-8255.
  • Self-Esteem: conduct problems sometimes occur due to a child’s low self-esteem. Academic, social, and relational failures can lead to a sense of hopelessness, and a child may ‘act out’ as a result.
  • Attachment: conduct problems can be related to a lack of trust and connection to caregivers. Attachment problems are likely if the child has been abandoned by a parent or has simply never connected to an adult.
  • Aggression or Antisocial Behavior: conduct problems sometimes occur when children with pent-up anger or low self-esteem get into physical fights. In extreme circumstances, they may also have anti-social behavior, which involves intent to harm others without empathy or remorse

Book Resources on Conduct Problems in Children

Siegel, Dan (2013): Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.

Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. 

Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Papolos, Demitri & Papolos, Janice (2002). The Bipolar Child: The definitive and reassuring guide to childhood’s most understood disorder.

Winfrey, Oprah & Perry, Bruce (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing 

Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie (2008). Late, lost and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning. 

For kids:

Esham, Barbara (2015). Mrs. Gorski, I think I have the wiggle fidgets. (New edition) (Adventures of everyday geniuses.) 

Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function). 

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