Antisocial behaviors are disruptive acts characterized by covert and overt
hostility and intentional aggression toward others. Antisocial behaviors
exist along a severity continuum and include repeated violations of social
rules, defiance of authority and of the rights of others, deceitfulness,
theft, and reckless disregard for self and others. Antisocial behavior can
be identified in children as young as three or four years of age. If left
unchecked these coercive behavior patterns will persist and escalate in
severity over time, becoming a chronic behavioral disorder.
Antisocial behavior may be overt, involving aggressive actions against
siblings, peers, parents, teachers, or other adults, such as verbal abuse,
bullying and hitting; or covert, involving aggressive actions against
property, such as theft, vandalism, and fire-setting. Covert antisocial
behaviors in early childhood may include noncompliance, sneaking,
, or secretly destroying another's property. Antisocial behaviors
also include drug and alcohol abuse and high-risk activities involving
self and others.
Between 4 and 6 million American children have been identified with
antisocial behavior problems. These disruptive behaviors are one of the
most common forms
of psychopathology, accounting for half of all childhood mental health
Gender differences in antisocial behavior patterns are evident as early as
age three or four. There has been far less research into the nature and
development pattern of antisocial behavior in girls. Pre-adolescent boys
are far more likely to engage in overtly aggressive antisocial behaviors
than girls. Boys exhibit more physical and verbal aggression, whereas
antisocial behavior in girls is more indirect and relational, involving
harmful social manipulation of others. The gender differences in the way
antisocial behavior is expressed may be related to the differing rate of
maturity between girls and boys. Physical aggression is expressed at the
earliest stages of development, then direct verbal threats, and, last,
indirect strategies for manipulating the existing social structure.
Antisocial behaviors may have an early onset, identifiable as soon as age
four, or late onset, manifesting in middle or late
. Some research indicates that girls are more likely than boys to exhibit
late onset antisocial behavior. Late onset antisocial behaviors are less
persistent and more likely to be discarded as a behavioral strategy than
those that first appear in early childhood.
As many as half of all elementary school children who demonstrate
antisocial behavior patterns continue these behaviors into adolescence,
and as many as 75 percent of adolescents who demonstrate antisocial
behaviors continue to do so into early adulthood.
Causes and symptoms
Antisocial behavior develops and is shaped in the context of coercive
social interactions within the
, community, and educational environment. It is also influenced by the
and irritability, cognitive ability, the level of involvement with
deviant peers, exposure to violence, and deficit of cooperative
problem-solving skills. Antisocial behavior is frequently accompanied by
other behavioral and developmental problems such as hyperactivity,
depression, learning disabilities, and impulsivity.
Multiple risk factors for development and persistence of antisocial
behaviors include genetic, neurobiological, and environmental stressors
beginning at the prenatal stage and often continuing throughout the
Genetic factors are thought to contribute substantially to the development
of antisocial behaviors. Genetic factors, including abnormalities in the
structure of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, may play a role in an
inherited predisposition to antisocial behaviors.
Neurobiological risks include maternal drug use during pregnancy, birth
complications, low birth weight, prenatal brain damage, traumatic
, and chronic illness.
High-risk factors in the family setting include the following:
Heavy exposure to media violence through television, movies, Internet
, and even cartoons has long been associated with an increase in the
likelihood that a child will become desensitized to violence and behave in
aggressive and antisocial ways. However, research relating the use of
violent video games with antisocial behavior is inconsistent and varies in
design and quality, with findings of both increased and decreased
aggression after exposure to violent video games.
Companions and peers are influential in the development of antisocial
behaviors. Some studies of boys with antisocial behaviors have found that
companions are mutually reinforcing with their talk of rule breaking in
ways that predict later delinquency and substance abuse.
Parents and teachers who notice a pattern of repeated lying, cheating,
, bullying, hitting, noncompliance, and other disruptive behaviors should
not ignore these symptoms. Early screening of at-risk children is critical
to deterring development of a persistent pattern of antisocial behavior.
Early detection and appropriate intervention, particularly during the
years and middleschool years, is the best means of interrupting the
developmental trajectory of antisocial behavior patterns. Serious
childhood antisocial behaviors can lead to diagnoses of
oppositional defiant disorder
(ODD). Children who exhibit
antisocial behaviors are at an increased risk for alcohol use disorders
Systematic diagnostic interviews with parents and children provide
opportunity for a thorough assessment of individual risk factors and
family and societal dynamics. Such assessment should include
parent-adolescent relationships; peer characteristics; school, home, and
community environment; and overall health of the individual.
Various diagnostic instruments have been developed for evidence-based
identification of antisocial behavior in children. The onset, frequency,
and severity of antisocial behaviors such as stealing, lying, cheating,
sneaking, peer rejection, low academic achievement, negative attitude, and
aggressive behaviors are accessed to determine appropriate intervention
Enhanced parent-teacher communications and the availability of school
psychologists and counselors trained in family intervention within the
school setting are basic requirements for successful intervention and
treatment of childhood antisocial behaviors.
School-based programs from early childhood onward that teach conflict
resolution, emotional literacy, and anger management skills have been
shown to interrupt the development of antisocial behavior in low-risk
students. Students who may be at higher risk because of difficult family
and environmental circumstances will benefit from more individualized
prevention efforts, including counseling, academic support, social-skills
training, and behavior contracting.
Academic settings with the capacity to deliver professional parental
support and provide feedback in a motivating way can help parents to
develop and hone effective parenting skills that may interrupt further
progression of antisocial behavior patterns in their children. Access to
written and video information on parenting skills and information about
community family resources, as well as promotion of parent-support groups,
are effective intervention strategies for changing family dynamics that
shape antisocial behavior in the children.
Older students who already exhibit a persistent pattern of antisocial
behavior can be helped with intensive individualized services that may
involve community mental health agencies and other outside intervention.
Community-based programs, including youth centers and recreational
programs with trained therapists, can provide additional support for
Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
—The repetitive, long-term ingestion of alcohol in ways that
impair psychosocial functioning and health, leading to problems with
personal relationships, school, or work. Alcohol use disorders include
alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse, alcohol intoxication, and alcohol
—Maladaptive behaviors engaged in as a means of avoiding or
escaping aversive events. Coercive behavior may include whining,
noncompliance, and lying.
—A behavioral and emotional disorder of childhood and
adolescence. Children with a conduct disorder act inappropriately,
infringe on the rights of others, and violate societal norms.
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
—A persistent disruptive behavior that includes three or more of
the following types of antisocial behaviors occurring frequently over a
six-month period: loss of temper; arguments with adults; defiance or
refusal to comply with adult's requests/rules; annoying others
deliberately and being easily annoyed;, blaming others with
unwillingness to accept responsibility for mistakes or behavior; angry,
resentful, spiteful, and vindictive behaviors.
Longitudinal studies have found that as many as 71 percent of chronic
juvenile offenders had progressed from childhood antisocial behaviors
through a history of early arrests to a pattern of chronic law breaking.
and prenatal care, a safe and secure family and social environment, early
with an emotionally mature and healthy parent, role models for prosocial
behaviors, non-coercive methods of parenting, peer relationships with
prosocial individuals, and early intervention when problems first appear
are all excellent means of assuring development of prosocial behaviors and
reducing and extinguishing antisocial behaviors in children.
Parents may hesitate to seek help for children with antisocial behavior
patterns out of
of the child being negatively labeled or misdiagnosed. Almost all
children will engage in some form of antisocial behavior at various stages
of development. Skilled parents will be able to lovingly confront the
child and help the child recognize that certain behaviors are
unacceptable. However if these conduct disturbances persist and worsen,
they should be taken seriously as precursors to more serious problems.
Early intervention is important for the sake of the child and the entire
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Antisocial Behavior in School
, 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.
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Adolescent Alcohol Use Disorders."
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
, November 2002. Available online at
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