Conduct problems include a wide variety of “acting out” behaviours in children, adolescents and adults, ranging from annoying but innocuous yelling, whining, and temper tantrums in children, to oppositional defiance, serious aggression, and criminal behaviour in older individuals. Conduct problems represent the largest proportion of the referrals to mental-health clinics, accounting for 30 to 50% of all referrals.

At the less serious end of the continuum of conduct problems, most children can manifest behaviours like temper tantrums or oppositionality as part of their normal development and socialization. Sensible behavioural management by parents is typically sufficient to help children navigate these trouble spots in their development.

As conduct problems become more serious, there is a tendency for these behavioural problems to reflect enduring and stable behavioural patterns — in short, to form what is known as a “syndrome.” There is not only a high degree of continuity of these patterns within individuals from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, but also considerable cross-generational continuity.

Some conduct problems arise from disorders like ADHD, self-regulatory disorders involving failure to inhibit responses, attend consistently, and learn from consequences. Some conduct problems are not related to ADHD, and require special long-term strategies of management and intervention to reduce risk of serious difficulties in adulthood.

It is imperative to address the earliest indicators of conduct problems. There are assessments that provide information about relative severity of the problem and long-term outcome, as well as special management strategies for parents and self-regulation training for those with conduct issues.