Signs & Symptoms

Conduct Problems

Is your child breaking the law?

Children with extreme behavioral problems can be challenging to parent. Your child may seem immune to consequences, unable to understand cause and effect, or unwilling to take ownership for mistakes. It may be that your child does not seem to have empathy or to show any concern for the feelings of others. Your child may seem to act without thinking.

You may wonder if your child realizes the impact of his or her behavior on others. When we think about these more extreme behaviors, we are not talking about the child who does not know his own strength and hurts others by accident. Extreme behavioral problems are intentional.

It may be hard to determine whether your child is unaware and acting as “a bull in a china shop” or is actually intending to cause harm. Sometimes parents misunderstand a child’s intentions and may report intentional misbehavior when actually a disability is to blame.

Let’s talk about the intentional misbehavior, but keep in mind that if you are unsure if behavior is purposeful, an evaluation of your child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses in the areas of attention, mood, behavior, and processing can offer guidance about the underlying causes of behavior.

What do challenges with Conduct Problems look like?

  • Demonstrating extreme behavioral problems?
  • Seeking revenge on others?
  • Appearing unable to be trusted?
  • Starting fights with other children?
  • Stealing objects from parents or other children?
  • Spending time in the principal’s office?
  • Receiving visits from the police or Student Resource Officer (SRO)?

Why is Conduct Problems happening?

Intentional rule breaking and law breaking behaviors are also known clinically as extreme behaviors, or conduct problems. Some of these behaviors may be related to trauma, attachment, behavior, mood, or a developmental disability. 

  • Trauma: It will be important to consider whether abuse has occurred. It will also be necessary to consider the consistency of relationships within the child’s life. When a child is displaying extreme behavior, a deep emotional trauma or abuse may be at the helm. Caregivers and clinicians should be careful not to miss cues of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. 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.
  • 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 key 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 either are extremely distant and disconnected or very inconsistent with their trust. These children may have been victims of abuse or suffered a long period where they were separated from parents. Children who have been abandoned or have simply never connected with any parent or adult, will likely have significant attachment problems. 


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 the perspective of another person. A child with autism may expect too much of a baby sibling or may be rough with your pet while only trying to play. Some children with ADHD will demonstrate extreme behaviors due to poor behavioral inhibition and impulsivity. If your child is showing signs of significant behavior problems, seek professional help right away.

How can I manage Conduct Problems at home?

These behaviors are extreme and seeking professional help should be at the top of your list. In the interim, you can develop some proactive supports at home. Target one or two of the most important behaviors to change. If you are targeting “hitting” and “destroying property,” reinforce “respect for family” at home and “taking care of our things.” Reward these behaviors with family activities, extra time to play outside or a trip to a trampoline park or bike park. Always have positive time with your child, despite misbehavior. Do not provide attention for hitting and destroying things.

However, it is possible to find time for closeness, even without providing such rewards. 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.

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 facilitate positive behavior in your child.

If you are concerned about safety, work to remove items that could harm to others and stay close by to reinforce calming behavior. Make sure you keep sharp knives or anything else dangerous under lock and key. Modeling 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.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Conduct Problems?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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Our Free Discovery Session is a 20-minute consultation where we can talk one-on-one about the concerns and questions you have about your child.

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Our Assessments allow us to determine your child’s specific strengths and challenges. We can use this information to develop a customized support plan which includes: referrals

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Once we understand your child’s needs, we will help families get connected to the right specialists. No more guesswork, no more wasted time and resources.

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Our Coaching Packages allow us to continually support families as they continue their journeys. Parental coaching, life-skills practice, and school advocacy are just a few examples of ways we help.

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