Do girls really experience conduct problems?

When you take a deep dive into the historical research surrounding adolescent conduct problems (e.g., aggression, delinquency, substance use), you will quickly notice that most of the articles have one thing in common: they are centered on boys. Now, at first glance, this might make sense. When you think back to your days in elementary and middle school, who were the kids who were always being reprimanded by the teachers? Who often broke the rules and continuously talked out of turn? Who kept being sent to the principal’s office for rough housing on the playground? I’d venture to guess that many of the kids you are picturing were boys. While this may be true, and the overall higher prevalence rates of conduct problems in boys versus girls supports this (Ghandour et al., 2019), thinking that conduct problems are an issue that only affects boys is misguided.

In fact, focusing our research efforts solely on boys completely ignores a substantial number of girls struggling with conduct problems throughout their adolescence. Emerging evidence has found that these girls often experience conduct problems in a wholly different way than boys do. For example, preliminary research has found that girls have different risk factors for conduct problems and end up exhibiting different outcomes associated with their conduct problems (Keenan et al., 1999).

Risk Factors

One of the most commonly discussed factors that can lead an adolescent to experience conduct problems is their friends (Chen et al., 2015; Dodge & Pettit, 2003; Snyder et al., 2004, 2008). For example, if all of your friends are constantly shoplifting, staying out late, and experimenting with drugs, you are at a heightened risk for doing the same (Deater-Deckard, 2001; Brown et al., 1986). However, if your friends engage in more positive behaviors like volunteering at a food bank and helping their parents around the house, this can make it less likely for you to engage in more problematic behaviors (Brown et al., 1986; Farrington et al., 1990). Emergent theories suggest that peer relationships predict conduct problems in girls even more so than in boys (Graves, 2007). This hypothesis is rooted in the different ways that parents and teachers socialize young girls to act non-aggressively throughout development and this different socialization is thought to effectively set girls up for failure when faced with threats to their peer relationships (i.e., rejection) (Graves, 2007). Thus, when a girl’s best friend rejects her by choosing to play with someone else on the playground, that girl is left unprepared to handle this emotional conflict and instinctually will respond to the situation in an overly aggressive manner. Further, it has been found that girls who have best friends of a different gender typically exhibit higher rates of conduct problems as compared to girls with best friends of the same gender, and no similar phenomenon has been found with boys (Arndorfer & Stormshak, 2008).      


What are some of the typical things that can happen later in life to an adolescent girl with conduct problems? For many people, the result of conduct problems during adolescence is nothing at all! Oftentimes, individuals of all genders who exhibit conduct problems throughout their adolescence grow out of them and stop engaging in these behaviors by the time they reach adulthood (Moore et al., 2017). This may happen completely naturally for a child across development, or this may occur after the child has received targeted interventions for their conduct problems. However, in cases where conduct problems in adolescents do persist or go untreated, there are some critical differences in the outcomes that boys and girls face. While boys typically continue to engage in similar types of behaviors into adulthood (e.g., criminal involvement, antisocial behaviors), girls instead often engage in different types of behaviors such as self-harm (Moffitt et al., 2001). Given the concerningly high rates of self-harm among girls (Morgan et al., 2017), it is imperative that conduct problems in girls are addressed at an early age so as to eliminate this potential pathway to self-harming behaviors. In addition, it has been found that girls who exhibit relational aggression (a type of aggression where harm is caused through damaging a person’s relationships or social status) in childhood are more likely to experience depression (Blain-Arcaro & Vaillancourt, 2017) and exhibit risk-taking behaviors later in life (Marsee et al., 2014; Spieker et al., 2012).


Given everything we know so far, it is clear that the experiences associated with conduct problems in girls can be very different than those with boys. Thus, we must no longer rely on a research base that consists almost exclusively of boys and need to work towards developing more and more data focused primarily on girls with conduct problems. Only after doing so can we develop appropriate intervention and prevention strategies specifically targeted at those girls with conduct problems in order to ensure that they are no longer ignored and receive the much needed care they deserve.



Arndorfer, C. L., & Stormshak, E. A. (2008). Same-sex Versus Other-sex Best Friendship in Early Adolescence: Longitudinal Predictors of Antisocial Behavior Throughout Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37(9), 1059.

Blain-Arcaro, C., & Vaillancourt, T. (2017). Longitudinal Associations between Depression and Aggression in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 45(5), 959–970.

Chen, D., Drabick, D. A. G., & Burgers, D. E. (2015). A Developmental Perspective on Peer Rejection, Deviant Peer Affiliation, and Conduct Problems Among Youth. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 46(6), 823–838.

Dodge, K. A., & Pettit, G. S. (2003). A biopsychosocial model of the development of chronic conduct problems in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 39(2), 349–371.

Ghandour, R. M., Sherman, L. J., Vladutiu, C. J., Ali, M. M., Lynch, S. E., Bitsko, R. H., & Blumberg, S. J. (2019). Prevalence and Treatment of Depression, Anxiety, and Conduct Problems in US Children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 206, 256-267.e3.

Graves, K. N. (2007). Not always sugar and spice: Expanding theoretical and functional explanations for why females aggress. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12(2), 131–140.

Keenan, K., Loeber, R., & Green, S. (1999). Conduct Disorder in Girls: A Review of the Literature. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2(1), 3–19.

Marsee, M. A., Frick, P. J., Barry, C. T., Kimonis, E. R., Centifanti, L. C. M., & Aucoin, K. J. (2014). Profiles of the forms and functions of self-reported aggression in three adolescent samples. Development and Psychopathology, 26(3), 705–720.

Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Rutter, M., & Silva, P. A. (2001). Sex differences in antisocial behaviour: Conduct disorder, delinquency, and violence in the Dunedin Longitudinal Study. Cambridge University Press.

Moore, A. A., Silberg, J. L., Roberson-Nay, R., & Mezuk, B. (2017). Life course persistent and adolescence limited conduct disorder in a nationally representative US sample: Prevalence, predictors, and outcomes. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52(4), 435–443.

Morgan, C., Webb, R. T., Carr, M. J., Kontopantelis, E., Green, J., Chew-Graham, C. A., Kapur, N., & Ashcroft, D. M. (2017). Incidence, clinical management, and mortality risk following self harm among children and adolescents: Cohort study in primary care. BMJ, 359, j4351.

Snyder, J., Prichard, J., Schrepferman, L., Patrick, M. R., & Stoolmiller, M. (2004). Child Impulsiveness—Inattention, Early Peer Experiences, and the Development of Early Onset Conduct Problems. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32(6), 579–594.

Snyder, J., Schrepferman, L., McEachern, A., Barner, S., Johnson, K., & Provines, J. (2008). Peer Deviancy Training and Peer Coercion: Dual Processes Associated With Early-Onset Conduct Problems. Child Development, 79(2), 252–268.

Spieker, S. J., Campbell, S. B., Vandergrift, N., Pierce, K. M., Cauffman, E., Susman, E. J., & Roisman, G. I. (2012). Relational Aggression in Middle Childhood: Predictors and Adolescent Outcomes. Social Development, 21(2), 354–375.