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Children and Parents' Antisocial Behavior

Updated September 2008 - Recent research from the University of Chicago published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that a mother's parenting style and a baby's temperament in the first year of life can reliably predict subsequent behavioral problems.

Researchers studied just over 1800 children aged 4-13 years. Maternal ratings of their temperament in the first year included activity levels, how "fearful, predictable and fussy" they were, and whether they had a generally happy disposition. Researchers also took into account the degree to which mothers stimulated their baby intellectually, were responsive to their demands, and used physical restraint or punishment. The definition of conduct problems in later childhood included "cheating, telling lies, trouble getting on with teachers, being disobedient at home and/or at school, bullying and showing no remorse after misbehaving".

Researchers found that both maternal ratings and parenting styles during the first year were reliable predictors of subsequent conduct problems. Less fussy, more predictable infants, and those who were more intellectually stimulated by their mothers were at low risk. Early spanking was associated with challenging behavior in European American families but not in Hispanic families.

The researchers concluded:

"Interventions focusing on parenting during the first year of life would be beneficial in preventing future child conduct problems.…Greater emphasis should be placed on increasing maternal cognitive stimulation of infants in such early intervention programs, taking child temperament into consideration."

Last year, a study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, published in the journal Child Development found that children raised in antisocial families are more likely to be antisocial themselves. In considering possible mechanisms, this study assessed the effect of young peoples' perceptions of antisocial behaviour by their parents.

Partly funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers studied 430 adolescents during high school years, together with their parents, specifically looking at levels of antisocial behaviour in both generations and adolescent perceptions. Antisocial behavior was considered in the context of substance use, reckless conduct and illegality, conflict and lying.

The study explored whether adolescent antisocial behavior could be explained by perceptions of their parents as antisocial, as well as by poor parenting as evidenced by factors such as lack of monitoring, hostility, and inconsistent discipline. They concluded that adolescent antisocial behavior was learned by observing and interpreting examples set by parents. Researchers suggest that parental models may validate antisocial behaviour in the next generation. Recognition of parental antisocial behavior was found to be a significant risk factor for similar conduct, more important than the teens' assessment of their parents' parenting abilities.

The study found no gender effect; antisocial behavior by either parent had the same impact on development of similar behaviour in male and female offspring. Researchers found that the strongest influence on a child's antisocial behavior in 12th grade was their level of behavior in 9th grade, suggesting a degree of stability in adolescent antisocial behavior with processes becoming established at an early stage.

Shannon J. Dogan, lead author and a research assistant at the University of California, Davis said:

"These findings suggest that focusing on how children perceive mom and dad's behavior and the origin of these perceptions could facilitate family-centered interventions designed to reduce the risk for problem behaviour. Further, identifying antisocial parents would assist in early identification of at-risk families. Interventions that reduce parental antisocial behavior and improve parenting practices should also reduce levels of problem behavior among teens."



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