What Are the Causes of Conduct Disorder?

Page content

Dealing with conduct disorder in a child or adolescent can be a frustrating experience for both parent and child. Many children and teens do unhealthy or destructive things to themselves or others while growing up, but for kids with conduct disorder, these “bad behaviors” become a pattern. A child with conduct disorder repeatedly engages in socially unacceptable behaviors such as stealing, lying, destroying property or harming others.

What Are the Causes of Conduct Disorder?

What causes the impulsive and often aggressive behavior of children with conduct disorder? No one knows exactly what explains the lack of empathy and socially inappropriate behaviors so characteristic of kids with conduct disorder, although various theories have been proposed. There’s little doubt that environment plays a part in conduct disorder, but there’s also evidence that kids with this disorder have abnormal brain responses to certain stimuli, especially those involving pain and distress.

In a study published in the journal Neuropsychologia in 2008, researchers did an MRI imaging study of a group of teenagers diagnosed with conduct disorder while they watched a movie where other people experienced pain. They found that areas of the brain involved in reward were activated while the teens watched the movie, suggesting that the teens felt gratified watching the suffering of others – instead of the empathy most normal people would feel. Some experts propose that kids with conduct disorder have autonomic under-arousal, meaning they don’t show the expected breathing or heart rate response to stimuli such as watching people experience pain.

Conduct disorder can run in families along with other mental health issues such as personality and mood disorders and alcohol abuse. According to research published in Psychiatric News in 2004, researchers have identified two gene areas on chromosome 2 and chromosome 19 that may be responsible for up to 70% of cases of conduct disorder. Interestingly, these genes are also linked with substance abuse and alcoholism.

Of course, environmental and social factors have also been proposed as a cause of conduct disorder, although these factors in the absence of a genetic predisposition might not be enough to cause the disorder. Such factors include the absence of one or both parents, growing up in an economically deprived environment and being subject to physical or mental abuse. A disproportionate number of children with conduct disorder come from homes with lower socioeconomic status. Not surprisingly, they often have learning problems and feel socially isolated from their peers, which further aggravates their problems.

Causes of Conduct Disorder: The Bottom Line?

The cause of conduct disorder is most likely a combination of biological factors and environmental ones. A child may be born with a genetic tendency towards conduct disorder but may not develop the disorder unless certain environmental influences are also present. Which is more important – environment or genetics? Hopefully, further research will answer this question.


Neuropsychologia. 46, 2607-2614.

Psychiatric News March 5, 2004. Volume 39 Number 5 Page 52.

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Michael Rutter, Eric A. Taylor. 2002.