Children’s problems can predict adult mental health issues - but a solution is at hand

Conduct problems in children are the single most reliable early indicator of adult mental health problems, according to an Australian psychologist and internationally recognised expert in child behaviour research.

Interventions aimed at empowering and training parents to help their children alter their aggressive and antisocial behaviour have been shown to be very effective, according to Professor Mark Dadds, a member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS).

Writing in the June edition of InPsych, the bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, Professor Dadds of the University of New South Wales Child Behaviour Research Clinic says that a number of large longitudinal studies have shown that behaviour problems in children are associated with a range of mental health problems in adults.

Australia has a proud record of developing evidence-based early intervention programs to address these behavioural difficulties. Such programs are highly cost effective, with interventions costing about $1,800 per child. In contrast, the ongoing cost to the Australian community of untreated conduct problems in children has been estimated at an average $140,000 per child.

Yet 25 per cent or fewer children and families in need are receiving assistance, because of lack of information or limitations within existing mental health services.  Additionally, parenting training with parents on their own without the child present is not currently eligible for Medicare rebates.

Professor Dadds says: “It is crucial to get parents appropriate assistance when conduct problems are developing, rather than waiting until more intractable difficulties have set in.”

He says: “It’s wrong to assume poor parenting causes behavioural problems – often they develop independently. But parenting children with aggressive, antisocial behaviour is difficult and parents need information and approaches that work.  Parents are the best resource the mental health system has for maximising child health, so we should ensure these parent training programs are readily available.”

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‘Conduct problems’ include a cluster of disorders relating to behaviour, including those known as conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Conduct disorder is characterised by aggressive, antisocial behaviour of some frequency and severity. Oppositional defiant disorder, which is often a precursor to conduct disorder, involves a pattern of hostility and difficulty with authority. It is estimated that 5-10 per cent of children in Australia suffer from a conduct or oppositional defiant disorder. More detailed information is available at or

The APS is the largest professional organisation for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to people’s lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.