There is no single understood set of causes for childhood mental health disorders. A combination of genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors are linked to each disorder.

Conduct disorders

A systematic review of the risk factors for conduct disorder and delinquency identified a large number of different psychosocial risk factors at an individual, family and social level.A Individual factors included impulsivity (with a diagnosis of ADHD itself a risk factor), low intelligence scores and low educational attainment. Family factors included parenting issues such as lack of supervision, harsh punishment and ‘cold’ parental attitudes. Social factors included low family income, peer influence and school influence.

Emotional disorders

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance on depression in children and young people suggests that the ‘stress-vulnerability’ model applies to children and young people as well as adults.1

In this model, depression occurs when someone who is vulnerable to depression experiences a particular stressor. Vulnerability can be genetic and psychosocial, with longstanding psychosocial difficulties (such as troubled family life, abuse and being bullied) being a precursor for major depressive episodes in more than 95% of cases. In children, the stressors are more often related to family problems, while in adolescents they are more often linked to friendship problems.

Hyperkinetic disorders

The NICE guidance on ADHD identifies a strong genetic component to these disorders.2

Environmental risk factors include maternal use of tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs during pregnancy. Psychosocial risk factors include early childhood trauma or adversity.


  1. Joseph Murray, B. A. & Farrington, D. P. (2010). Risk factors for conduct disorder and delinquency: key findings from longitudinal studies. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry55(10), 633.


  1. National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (2005). Depression in Children and Young People: Identification and management in primary, community and secondary care. NICE Clinical Guidance 28. (PDF document)

  2. National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (2013). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: The NICE guideline on diagnosis and management of ADHD in children, young people and adults. NICE Clinical Guidance 72. (PDF document)