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Autor: Radiana Marcu
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Conduct disorders affect the harmonious development of teenagers’ personality, their family, school and social environment they belong to. To reduce the negative effects of conduct disorders, it is important to intervene at latest in the period they are forming. For intervention to be effective, it is important to understand the psychological mechanism of formation of conduct disorders. An explanatory model that we propose is based on Adlerian psychology. From this point of view, normal and abnormal development depends on the way the child faces the inferiority feeling common to all people. If family and environmental factors are not adequate for a harmonious child development, the feeling of personal inferiority transforms itself in inferiority and superiority complexes, which might externalize through aggressive behaviors specific to conduct disorders.


In current society adolescent conduct disorders are more and more frequent, with a negative impact at a personal, family and social level. In time, conduct disorders were analyzed from different perspectives: biological, psychological, medical, social and even legal. We can include here the mechanisms that, according to Adlerian psychology, could lead to the formation of conduct disorders.
In DSM IV– TR (2003/2000), conduct disorder is described as a persistent and repetitive pattern of behavior, through which other people’s fundamental rights and social norms are violated.Adolescents with conduct disorders have deficits in the ability to initiate, maintain and develop effective social interaction (social competence) and in recognizing, understanding and emotional self-regulation (emotional competence). These dysfunctional behaviors and emotional patterns have a negatively impact in the academic performance. Also, these teenagers have poor interactions with peers and rejection or social exclusion, which may have adverse long term effects on their psychological functioning.
Adler (1996/1966) emphasizes the importance of understanding humans a social being. The family represents the first community where the child is formed as a social being (Dixon & Strano, 1989). The result of child’s interactions with the family environment include beliefs about the himself; beliefs about the world and life; ethic beliefs and relational patterns. A distinct role in motivating and modeling the child’s behavior is attributed to the feeling of inferiority. The positive or negative motivational force of the feeling of inferiority is modeled by social interest (Dixon & Strano, 1989). Therefore,depending on the degree to wich the feeling of social communion has been developed during childhood, some teenagers will develop adaptive behaviors, while others will get to conduct disorders.



In tems of individual psychology, proposed by Alfred Adler, the man is a social being, who creates a lifestyle based on family and social environment in which he lives, on his potentialities, and on the subjective perspective of personal weaknesses (Adler,
2009/ 1929). The psyche is formed in childhood, and the behavioral patterns outlined during this time remain largely constant at maturity (Butler-Bowdon, 2007). This is the reason why childhood and primary socialization during this time frame of life are essential for shaping the later adult.
Summarizing Adler’s conception of human personality, we could say that the natural tendency of man is striving for personal power and the feeling of personal identity, in addition to adapting to society and contributing to the general welfare (Adler, 1927).
For Adler, the difference between normality and abnormality is determined by a person’s social adaptability. For this purpose, social interest seen as the feeling of unity with others is essential. From this point of view, a person with a normal mental development seeks the success of the entire society through cooperation with others, while a person with a disharmonic mental development will strive exclusively toward personal superiority. Social interest is by Adler as being potentially rooted in every person, but it must be developed in order to contribute to a useful lifestyle (Feist şi Feist, 2005). The origin of this feeling can be found in the mother-child relationship.
Normal and abnormal development depend on the way the child is confronted with the feeling of personal inferiority and his weakness. Since very young, the child feels that he cannot manage by himself and that he needs to depend on someone else
to satisfy the most basic needs. At the same time with the inferiority feeling, the child also feels the need to belong, to be accepted and to be recognized.
The appearance of the inferiority feeling in childhood, gives rise to the goal of being big, complete and powerful (Adler, 1927). By the age of 4-5 years, the creative power of the child, meaning the ability to freely shape his own behavior and personality, is developed enough for the child to set a personalized final goal (Feist şi Feist, 2005). Even though this final goal is not largely acknowledged, it still guides one person’s behavior and objectives. Later, retrospectively analyzing the achievements of a person, the “movement line” towards the final goal can be observed.
In a world where everyone else seems to be bigger and stronger, the child tries to develop personal power, the easiest way. Therefore, the child’s development can take two paths: (1) on the one hand is imitating adults and their ways of becoming more assertive and powerful, (2) on the other way, conscious manifestation of weaknesses might appear, in order to get the adults’ attention and help (Butler-Bowdon, 2007). During development, each child searches the best way to compensate for its weaknesses.
The existence of a universal feeling of inferiority is one of the basic assumptions of Adlerian psychology. Another assumption refers to the fact that the feeling of inferiority, insecurity and insufficiency needs to be overpass, which it constrains the individual to set a life goal and to try to achieve it. Therefore, the feeling of inferiority becomes a motivational force, whose positive or negative valence depends on the development of the individual’s social interest (Dixon & Strano, 1989).


Normal development.

A normal development involves a natural compensation, the achievement of a comfortable balance between the feeling of inferiority, the need to belong and the need to be significant. In this case, the child does not feel the exaggerated need to gain power at the expense of others and can adapt socially. Thus, to overcome the perceived inferiority, the child finds various ways to compensate in order to handle life situations and to accepts himself and his weaknesses. Courage, ambition, willpower are ways the child uses to compensate for the deficiencies he has or he subjectively perceives to get to accept himself, to be appreciated by others. Being supported by the family, gathering and mobilizing his forces,
the child orients himself towards the development of more skills and the valorization through socially useful activities.

Abnormal development.

The attempts of the psyche to eliminate the feeling of inferiority will shape the entire life of a person. Sometimes, the child’s attempts to compensate the feeling of inferiority will take place in exaggerated ways. Thus, one can get to an inferiority or superiority complex.

The complex of inferiority is given by the exaggerated feeling of inferiority, which are intensified and personalized (Kopp, 1982). A child’s feeling of inferiority is due to a large discrepancy between fundamental beliefs about themselves (how am I, and what can I do) and the ideal self (how I want to be, and what I want to do). Such a discrepancy cannot be dimmed by usual means of compensation, which discourages the child until he gets to unnecessary or destructive behaviors. The complex of inferiority represents the manifestation of the feelings of inferiority, and may vary depending on circumstances, being evident only in certain areas of a persons’life.The exaggerated feeling of inferiority might be expressed by character traits, gestures, posture, thinking style or avoiding confrontations with the demands of life (Adler, 2010/ 1933).
Dissatisfied with his person, feeling inferior and unable to reach the ideal self, perceiving life as hostile, the child will choose between two ways of expressing the complex of inferiority. On the one hand, there is withdrawn – the child will be hesitant and withdrawn,
avoiding as much as possible to be confronted with the situations he feels incapable with. Therefore, one way of manifesting the complex of inferiority is helplessness, withdrawal, isolation, victimization, in fact, means to draw attention to him. For example, through isolation, a person does not hurt anybody, but she keeps others away, refusing to cooperate, thus manifesting a useless behavior for family and society.
On the other hand, the exaggerated feeling of inferiority can lead to dysfunctional behaviors (antisocial). Based on distorted perceptions of the self, others, and the world, the child develops the conviction that the world is hostile and the others are against him. “They are against everyone and everyone is against them” (Adler, 1996/ 1966, p. 101). Through the intensity of his feelings and beliefs, the child/ adolescent shows boundary problems: difficulties in getting close to people, to say no, or abuses.

The complex of superiority . Unlike the feeling of inferiority, which is general, the feeling of false superiority is characteristic only to certain people.




Figure 1. Normal and abnormal development from the perspective of individual psychology


This represents the foundation of the complex of superiority that can be reached in two ways.
The first way is based on the gap between the beliefs about the self and the ideal self, which generates at first an exaggerated feeling of inferiority, externalized later by a complex of inferiority. Being unable to accept this feeling, and sometimes having a favorable family context, these people get to deceive themselves as being superior to others.
In order to prove their superiority, they will do things through which to show they can do what others cannot. Through repeated attempts to prove their superiority and to draw attention, these children become egocentric. For example, the child will over- compensate and will make exaggerated efforts to overcome his deficiencies or he will do “amazing, great actions, that go way beyond the usual measure, without caring for the close ones, searching to ensure their own position” (Adler, 1996/ 1966, p. 100).
In this case of overcompensation, either by the exacerbated “I have to be seen and to be important” or by his special acts, the child gets to the complex of superiority. Thus, either by an exaggerated egocentrism, or by en extremely positive self image due to special achievements, the child gets to have the feeling and the belief that he is superior to oters. Ways of expressing the feeling of superiority might include: impertinence, arrogance, pride, vanity, anger, exaggerated claims, impatience, and ostentation. When the adolescent’s vanity exceeds a certain level, it becomes dangerous; it might constrain him to use- less measures, loose the contact with reality, and thus to cannot understand human relationships, becoming totally detached by his duties concerning school and society.
The second way is the direct one, meaning it is the one avoiding the complex of inferiority. This time, in the context of a general feeling of inferiority, under the influence of parental models and of received education, the child might have an overly positive self-perception regarding a certain position that should distinguish him form others. For example, if a child is spoiled and his parents confer him qualities he does not have and they minimize the child’s mistakes by unrealistic encouragements, the later comes to believe he can do things others cannot, and he really is superior to others. His goal will be to maintain the superiority over other, regardless the actions required to do this.
All these answers to the subjective perception of the feeling of inferiority and superiority go in parallel with the child’s need to feel he belong, has others attention and is significant.



There are several family pathogen psychological factors presenting a special interest for the formation of conduct disorder. Among the most representative ones we can include: traumatic family, inadequate education, lack of early emotional interaction, early separation, abandonment, divorce, foster care, and adoption (Milea, 2006).
Regardless the historical period and the socio- cultural context, we find the same role attributed to the parents, namely to ensure the development of children so that they become competent and responsible adults as well as socially adapted. The successful completion of this role depends on many factors, including the structure and the function of the family, the socio-cultural environment, and also the basic and specific needs of every child. For example, the factors concerning the structure and the functioning of the family include:

  • The type of family – single parents, extended family, consensual family, recomposed, with foster care child, with adopted child, with one child, with more children, with older parents or very young ones, with parents having physical or psychological disorders.
  • The psychological position in the family – that the child holds based on family types listed above, and also based on his health, birth order, number of siblings and the relationships among them (special cases being one boy among several girls or and vice versa), the role attributed to the child by parents.
    • Family relationships – emotional tone, family environment, conflict between parents and children and between other members of the family.
  • Family members’ characteristics – we include here aspects concerning parental attitude, the capacity to assume the parent role, the capacity to receive and give love, to know the child and to approach him according to his age and potential.
  • Family values – values promoted by the family, rights, obligations, merits and minuses of family members. Excessive values, contradictory values, and unsatisfactory values of family members have a strong negative impact on child development.
  • Parental models – personal examples of responsible acceptance of tasks related to family and work,
    social behavior, discipline and dignity. The child can copy antisocial behaviors of family members, depending on the models provided by the parents.

Bradley and Corwin (2005) identified six basic regulatory tasks the parents have in their role. The first three are (1) sustenance/ safety, (2) informational stimulation and positive orientation towards goals, and (3) support, meaning understanding and responding to the children’s emotional needs, and guiding the children towards a good functioning and adaptation to the environment.These three roles are derived from basic human needs. The next three tasks address the child’s individuality and complexity: (4) structuring the information according to the child’s possibilities and needs, (5) surveillance of the environment and the child’s activities in order to protect him from negative influences, and (6) social integration. Parents fulfill these roles more or less well. This depends on the pathogen family factors listed above.

Studies show that children’s social skills, meaning the ability to form and maintain social relationships, are correlated with the degree of responsiveness of the parents (Bradley & Corwin, 2005). Also, the attachment towards the mother is important for the child’s development, but negative effects can be overcome by careful and responsible involvement of parents.


The role parents play in the development of social interest.

For Adler, social interest is a barometer of a person’s mental health. By social interest we understand a feeling of social communion, meaning the feeling of unity with the entire society the person belongs to. Through these lenses, the man sees others as his equals and he has the capacity to respect their individuality and their needs, acting both for personal interest and for other’s interest.
The social interest has its origin in the mother- child relationship and is developed during the first years of life under the influence and model of the family. Each parent has a role in the development of the child’s social interest.
From the perspective of individual psychology, the mother’s role is to develop a mother-child relationship that will facilitate the cooperation with others and maturation of social interest (Feist & Feist, 2006). In order to do this, the mother should have a sense of sincere and deep rooted love towards her child. It is important that this love is focused on the well being of the child, and not on mother’s need to satisfy her superiority feeling of loving her child. The mother will facilitate the development of social interest if she can manage her own emotional relationships, being able to receive and give love at the same time. If she is mostly focused on the child, he will be spoiled. When the mother is rather focused on the partner or society in the detriment of the child, the later will feel neglected. In both situations, she will fail to develop the child’s social interest.
The father, in his turn, needs to manage his emotions by showing his affection to the child as well as to others. The emotional detachment and authoritarianism of the father prevents the development of the social interest of the child. If the father is emotionally detached, the child will feel neglected and he will develop a parasitic attachment to the mother, his goal becoming the personal superiority. In the father is authoritarian and the child perceives him tyrannical, he will learn to strive for personal power, without considering others.
The complete and functional family is important for a harmonious development of the child. In the case of other types of family, with single parents, reconstituted, separated, consensual, with parents working abroad, the child misses both, the models and the conditions for harmoniously shaping his personality and to overcome the feeling of inferiority.



Conduct disorders affect the harmonious development of teenagers’ personality, their family, school and social environment they belong to. From the point of view of the adolescents who experience conduct disorders, they can get to strengthening antisocial behavioral patterns and to the development of a personality disorder.
The family is affected by poor relationships with the teenager, as well as through the consequences of his attitudes and behaviors. A deviant behavioral model can also affect the school environment. The effect on society is immediately felt both by the victims of deviant behaviors, and through the promotion of negative models and values and diminished social solidarity in long term.
To reduce the negative effect of conduct disorder, it is important to intervene at the latest during their formation. The intervention is primarily addressed to the family, which we saw that plays as essential role in the development of the adolescent’s personality, as well as in the primary and secondary prevention of conduct disorders.
In order for the intervention to be efficient, it is important for the therapist to understand the formation mechanism of conduct disorders. An explanatory model we propose is based on the perspective of individual psychology of normal human psychological development. We will show how conduct disorders are formed based on the feeling of inferiority, under the influence of family risk factors and a reduced social interest.
The general feeling of inferiority can generate a positive or negative movement line, depending on the subjective perception of the child’s capacity to handle himself and the development of social interest. Of particular importance in the positive or negative child development is the degree the child can be educated and the education modalities offered by the parents. How much the child can be educated depends on the one hand on the intensity of the feeling of inferiority, and on the other hand on the final goal set by the child.
It may appear a number of difficulties concerning the availability of the children to be educated due to the fact that they are devalued, disadvantaged by nature, and often they are unjustly humiliated by others. In such cases it might appear a faulty development.
On the other hand, there might be complications in the child’s education because of parents’ attitudes and actions: exaggerated claims, expressing discontent concerning the child potential and his immaturity, failure to take the child seriously, treating the child like a toy, ridicule, mockery, regarding the child as a good that has to be kept or, contrary, as a burden, emotional coldness, irritation, exaggerated authority. These are just some of the multitude of family factors with a pathogen role in child development. Most often, they can be met together, which aggravates the situation.
On the background of family pathogen factors and a reduce availability to be educated, the general feeling of inferiority can lead to the development of conduct disorders, on the one hand through the exaggerated feeling of inferiority, and on the otherhand through the feeling of false superiority.
Un exaggerated feeling of inferiority can lead to the manifestation of the complex of inferiority in two ways: (1) the withdrawal in face of difficulty, by victimization, helplessness, hostile isolation, neurotic behavior, or (2) aggressive reactions, dysfunctional and antisocial behaviors (Figure 2).
The manifestation of the complex of inferiority through conduct disorders can take the shape of antisocial behaviors: lying, stealing, aggressive acts through which the child/ adolescent wish to be valorized. Underlying these behaviors are the beliefs that he is inferior and he has not the necessary strength to overcome his weaknesses and to responsibly involve himself in his tasks. Thus, he allows to be easily attracted to problematic behaviors, usually in the context of criminal groups, where he is seen and he feels he belongs to. Other people are seen as being against him.
An exaggerated feeling of inferiority does not necessarily lead to inadequate and antisocial behaviors. If the family ensures the child an adequate emotional climate, meaning it offers him attention, involvement, valorization, encouragement, he will not need to overcompensate the felt discrepancy through exaggerated behaviors or actions. On the other hand, if the child has an elevated social interest, even if he has an exaggerated feeling of inferiority, his behavior will be directed toward something useful for the society.
A conduct disorder can also be formed by the feeling of personal superiority.Thus, if the child creates a false positive self-image, he will fight to maintain it and to impose it to others. All his actions will be directed toward proving his superiority, functioning according to a personal logic. For example, the adolescent beliefs that through criminal actions he can prove he is superior to the authorities and he is capable to defeat others.
The lack of social interest of the adolescents with conduct disorder makes all their social activities to be socially harmful, because they are cowards, lacking courage, without being aware of it. They avoid all the usual life tasks (school obligations, family, and society). This makes them social misfits. They function after a psychotic pattern, where only personal logic is important, and not the other people. If the manifestation of the complex of inferiority makes the withdrawal from life tasks to be partial because
they cannot accomplish them, the teenagers with the complex of superiority totally avoid them because they are not interested to function like others.
In the case of children and adolescents with disharmonic life style, based on the complex of inferiority or superiority, Adler identifies three types based on more prone psychic aspect: (1) focused on thinking, (2) focused on emotions, and (3) focused on action. Mostly, the later ones will get to antisocial acts, on Adler’s opinion (Adler, 2010/ 1933).
The education received from parents can play an essential role both in developing, promoting and maintaining the conduct disorder, as well as for primary and secondary intervention. There are several forms of inadequate education, even though we will only present some of them, which are important for the understanding of conduct disorder: hypo- protective education, hyper-protective education, and contradictory education (Milea, 2006).
Hypo-protective education can take many forms: (1) child neglect and lack of ensuring material, emotional, informational and social conditions necessary for the child’s development, and also the lack of necessary attention and time spent with the child, (2) unrealistic demands of parents, that put extreme pressure on child by refusing to accept him as he is, or (3) minimizing and neglecting the value of the child.
In all these cases, the child will feel inadequate and might develop an exaggerated feeling of inferiority.
Hyper-protective education might be permissive (spoil) or authoritarian. In the case of permissive hyper-protective education, the child is exaggeratedly spoiled, praised without justification, his mistakes are minimized, and he is not allowed to perform his duties, being used with the fact that someone else will do everything instead. This child will develop a false feeling of personal superiority. An authoritarian hyper- protective education implies a perfectionist education, with parents mistrusting the child’s abilities and a strict supervision of everything the child does. This type of education can lead to the development of an exaggerated feeling of inferiority and further, either to his fixation in a complex of inferiority, or his transformation in a feeling of superiority in an effort to overcompensate in order to meet the parents’ demands.Contradictory/ inconsistent education is usually met in the cases where there are various styles or conflicts between family members, or when the child is cared for by numerous persons.




Figure 2. The formation mechanism of conduct disorder based on the general feeling of inferiority

In both situations the child is confused by different educational styles, values and attitudes that are pro- moted. Also, the parent-child or child-caregiver is poor. The exaggerated feeling of inferiority a child can get to when confronted with inconsequent education can be fixed in a complex of inferiority or can lead to a false feeling of superiority, which in their turn will be mani- fested through a complex of superiority.
Under the influence of family risk factors, inadequate education, some wrong beliefs about the self, others and the world, of erroneous ethical beliefs, as well as a re- duced social interest, the general feeling of inferiority can be developed in an exaggerated feeling of inferiority or in a false feeling of superiority, as illustrated in figure
2. Under the influence of the same factors, the feeling of inferiority or the feeling of false superiority can lead to the a manifestation in the form of dysfunctional behaviors, specific for conduct disorder.



It is important to specify, that not all children with exaggerated feelings of inferiority or with the feeling of personal superiority will reach conduct disorder. There are several protective factors that can be used for the prevention of conduct disorder or for an efficient intervention.As Adler and other authors from within the field of individual psychology emphasize, increased social interest is an adaptive factor for social integration and socially useful behaviors. Some studies
show that reduced levels of social interest are related
with criminal behavior (Feist şi Feist, 2005). Also, in the case of offenders with moderated social interest, they can benefit from various forms of psychotherapy.
The education offered by the parents, besides that it can lead to the development of social interest, it is also important for the harmonious development of children. As we have seen, an inadequate education favors a disharmonic development of children. Thus, it is important that parents and family are helped to understand the psychological mechanism of normal/ abnormal development of the child, errors that have been made, both to reduce risk factors and to know how to develop in children the feeling of social communion. The model we proposed above offers an explanation of the mechanism of the formation of conduct disorder from the perspective of Adlerian psychology. Other models can offer other explanations and different interventions.
We realize that the family can be, on the one hand, a risk factor for developing conduct disorders, and on the other hand, a support for the harmonious development of adolescents, and also in the prevention and recovery of dysfunctional behaviors. In addition of the importance of family for preventing conduct disorders, it is necessary to consider much broader influences at social, cultural and educational level (Milea, 2009). We consider that prophylactic measures in such cases should focus on the education of social interest.



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