Many factors may contribute to a child developing conduct disorder, including brain damage, child abuse, school failure, and traumatic life experiences. Certain children have a genetic vulnerability to this disorder, the nature of which is unclear. When vulnerability is combined with high-risk environmental factors, such as poverty, parental neglect, marital discord, parental illness, parental alcoholism, and having a parent with antisocial personality disorder, chances of CD increase.

Adolescents with CD have been found to have impairment in the frontal lobe of the brain, an area that affects the ability to plan, to avoid harm, and to learn from negative consequences.