Journal Issue: Long-Term Outcomes Of Early Childhood Programs Volume 5 Number 3 Winter 1995
Juvenile Delinquency and Conduct Disorder
Juvenile delinquency is a legal term whose definition varies from state to state.4 Generally, however, the term is used to describe minors whose behaviors have been adjudicated as illegal by a juvenile court. Delinquency usually refers to behavior that would be criminal if the child were an adult. The legal system terms behavior that is illegal only if committed by a minor, such as running away, a status offense or unruly behavior.5
In the educational and mental health fields, some or all of those behaviors might be called "antisocial behaviors," and children or youths who demonstrate repeated episodes of such behaviors might be diagnosed as suffering from a "conduct disorder." According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists, a diagnosis of conduct disorder requires the commission of at least three different antisocial acts over a six-month period. Qualifying antisocial behaviors include initiating fights, bullying or physical cruelty to people or animals, the use of weapons, stealing, rape, fire setting, chronic truancy, running away or lying, breaking into someone else's home or car, and destruction of property.6Chronic Delinquency
No matter which terms are used, research on delinquency shows three key findings: (1) a small group of chronic offenders is responsible for committing the majority of serious juvenile offenses; (2) there are two groups of youthful offenders, distinguished by when their antisocial behavior begins; and (3) youths whose delinquent careers begin early tend not to specialize in any particular type of antisocial act.
Studies indicate that a few chronic offenders commit the vast majority of offenses. In a study of 411 working-class boys in London, for example, those children rated by teachers and peers as "most troublesome" at ages 8 to 10 represented 22% of the whole sample, but 70% of future chronic offenders.7 Closer to home, an examination of 13,150 men born in 1958 in Philadelphia demonstrated that, while those with five or more contacts with the justice system comprised only 7.5% of the group, they were responsible for 61% of all recorded offenses (including 61% of homicides, 75% of rapes, and 65% of aggravated assaults).8
History of Antisocial Behavior
Many longitudinal studies show that severe antisocial behaviors in childhood, such as frequent fighting, hitting, stealing, destroying or vandalizing property, or lying, are the strongest predictors of chronic delinquency.7 Both criminological and psychological research converge on a distinction between two groups of youths: one whose antisocial behavior or delinquent "career" is limited to adolescence and one whose antisocial behavior or delinquent career starts early—often in early childhood—and persists into adulthood.9
Diversity of Delinquent Behaviors
Youths whose antisocial behavior persists into adulthood are more likely to engage in a range of antisocial behavior rather than to specialize in any particular type of antisocial act. A study of 195 boys 10- to 17-years-old, for example, indicated that the boys who committed different types of crimes were at much higher risk for chronic delinquency than were the boys who specialized in a particular sort of antisocial behavior: half had three or more contacts with the police as compared with fewer than 10% of the boys who specialized.10Preventing Chronic Delinquency: The Search for Childhood Risk Factors
Together, these findings on the characteristics of chronic delinquency suggest that one important way to decrease overall crime rates among youths is to prevent chronic delinquency, and that early childhood may be an important developmental period to target for its prevention. The remainder of this article explores how and whether chronic delinquency can be prevented. This requires answering three interrelated questions: (1) Are there risk factors in early childhood which increase the probability of later chronic delinquency? (2) Do these factors cause chronic delinquency or are they only associated with it? (3) Can early childhood programs that lessen the impact of these factors prevent chronic delinquency?
Researchers have long sought factors that are regularly associated with chronic delinquency. The strongest factor, as mentioned above, is a history of antisocial behavior in childhood, but many other early risk factors have also been linked to chronic delinquency. These factors, listed in Table 1, include perinatal difficulties, neurological and biological factors, low verbal ability, neighborhoods characterized by social disorganization and violence, parental criminality and substance abuse, inconsistent and/or harsh parenting practices, low socioeconomic status, and exposure to media violence.11
The most important of these factors appear to be low socioeconomic status, having parents who have been convicted of crimes, the child's low cognitive ability(especially poor verbal ability), poor parental child rearing, and the child's own history of antisocial behavior, conduct disorder, or troublesomeness.12 In one study of boys in London, for example, the 8- to 10-year-olds with four or more of these predictors included 15 of 23 future chronic offenders (the 23 were to be responsible for fully half of the convictions in the cohort of 411 youths).12
The following sections explore evidence concerning two of the risks that have been consistently associated with later delinquency and that have most frequently been investigated in outcomes of early childhood programs.
Parenting and Social Support
Longitudinal evidence from many studies suggests that hostile or rejecting parenting and lack of parental supervision is associated with children's later antisocial behavior and delinquency. In more than two decades of research, Gerald Patterson and his colleagues at the Oregon Social Learning Center have proposed and developed supportive evidence for a model of how parenting behavior can lead to antisocial behavior in children. They suggest that parents of antisocial children first reinforce commonplace, low level aversive behaviors such as noncompliance, teasing, or tantrums. Then, as the child learns to respond to aversive acts through aversive counterattacks, increasingly severe coercive interchanges occur.13 Interventions involving parent training to reduce such coercive interactions have decreased antisocial behaviors up to 4.5 years after treatment.14
If harsh or poor parenting can lead to antisocial behavior, one would expect that nurturant parenting might protect against the development of such behavior. There is evidence that a good relationship with one parent, marked by warmth and the absence of severe criticism, can have a substantial protective effect against the development of later antisocial behavior.15
One might also expect that factors which promote good parenting might indirectly help prevent antisocial behavior. There is some evidence that providing social support (emotional, material, or informational assistance) for parents can, in fact, operate in that fashion. Social support, from partners and from community members, helped mothers of newborns in one study respond more positively and attentively to their children.16 Conversely, low social support appears to be associated with subsequent behavior problems: a longitudinal study of 83 poor inner-city African-American and Puerto Rican teen mothers found that low social support from friends when children were one year of age predicted behavior problems when children were three years of age.17
Low scores on measures of children's cognitive ability such as school achievement, general intelligence quotient (IQ), and verbal ability are associated with delinquency.7,18 While there is some disagreement, most of the evidence suggests that cognitive deficits lead to antisocial behavior and not vice versa. For example, a longitudinal study of 837 children on the Hawaiian island of Kauai indicated that age-appropriate language development at 2 and 10 years protected high-risk children against later delinquency.19 Another longitudinal study of 1,037 children from New Zealand indicated that IQ deficits tended to precede the development of serious antisocial behavior and that the effects of low IQ on behavior were independent of the effects of factors such as low socioeconomic status, ethnicity, academic attainment, and motivation.20
Are the Risk Factors Causal?
Just because a factor is associated with later chronic delinquency does not mean, of course, that it caused the delinquency. Most human behavior develops through the complex interplay of multiple factors across multiple settings (such as home, school, and neighborhood), and delinquent behavior is no exception. Identifying its cause therefore requires sophisticated analyses designed to disentangle the effects of multiple risk factors. This task is even more difficult than might be supposed because there is considerable research evidence that the risk factors operate differently when multiple risk factors are present. For example, children exposed to multiple risk factors are much more prone to later delinquency than are those exposed to just one or even two of these factors.21
Evidence also indicates that the potency of a single risk factor can be increased by the presence of a second risk factor. For example, children whose parents are criminals are more likely to become delinquent themselves, but that association is strengthened still further if children are exposed to early family conflict.
Finally, a risk factor may exert an indirect rather than a direct influence on development of delinquent behavior. For example, children who grow up in single-parent households tend to have higher rates of later delinquency, but this appears to be due to difficulty in providing adequate supervision, not single parenthood per se.13,22
Research studies have identified several examples of these sorts of complex interrelationships among early causal factors for chronic delinquency, and some key examples are depicted in Table 1.11
If a given factor is causally linked to delinquency, then one would expect that buffering a child against the effects of that factor would help prevent later delinquent behavior. Research indicates that this is so for at least some risk factors. For example, as mentioned earlier, studies indicate that providing emotional and community social support to the parent is associated with consistent, nurturing child rearing, which in turn is associated with lower levels of antisocial behavior among low-income children. In this instance, social support appears to buffer children and families from the effects of low socioeconomic status.
Implications for Preventive Programs
Longitudinal evidence on the development of delinquency behavior suggests several promising directions for prevention. First, the evidence suggests that early childhood programs which buffer the effects of a given delinquency risk factor should also be effective in preventing chronic delinquency.
Second, because multiple risk factors appear to have such a pronounced negative effect, early childhood programs that reduce multiple risks may be more successful in preventing chronic delinquency than are those that target only a single risk factor.
Third, the research implies that the content of preventive early childhood programs should be such that they attempt to enhance parents' social support, foster positive parenting and family interactions, facilitate child cognitive development (especially verbal skills), and reduce family level and community level poverty. In other words, crime prevention programs should seek to reduce or eliminate the risk factors associated with delinquency.
The next section of this article reviews early education and family support programs which have attempted to improve the lives of children and families, to determine if the programs either decreased delinquency or antisocial behavior, or lessened the impact of the factors that are hypothesized to lead to such behavior.