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Parenting Information From NIMH

Latest information on child violence, ADHD, autism, depression, learning disabilities, and coping with traumatic events.

Child and Adolescent Violence Research at the NIMH

This is a time of high concern about violent behavior by young people. As a nation, we are in a period of reflection as to what can be done to stem this tide. The NIMH is currently involved in a "taking stock" activity to guide research into the areas where questions exist, with a special emphasis on appropriate targets for intervention. Youth violence is a complex problem and will require complex solutions. There is a natural desire to develop a "child violence" profile, but this not only risks a negative label on a child, but also risks missing the quiet, troubled child with a series of problems, who may actually become the most violent.

The NIMH has gathered information about risk factors, experiences, and processes that are related to the development of aggressive, antisocial, and violent behavior, including mental health problems, particularly depression, associated with childhood and adolescence. NIMH research points to the importance of a nurturing social environment in childhood, good early education and success in academic areas. It has been learned that the influence of peers, whether positive or negative, is of critical importance. Research also suggests that current policies and approaches grouping or hlooking at violence in younousing troubled adolescents together may be the wrong approach, and it is clear that there are no quick, inexpensive answers. Each research finding suggests possible interventions that in turn need to be studied. Some proposed interventions have been found to actually increase the negative behavior and so due care must be taken. This overview highlights what is known about risk factors for the development of antisocial behavior, and the often underutilized early prevention and intervention strategies.

Risk Factors

Tragic events like the recent shootings at Columbine High School capture public attention and concern, but are not typical of youth violence. Most adolescent homicides are committed in inner cities and outside of school. They most frequently involve an interpersonal dispute and a single offender and victim. On average, six or seven youths are murdered in this country each day. Most of these are inner-city minority youths. Such acts of violence are tragic and contribute to a climate of fear in schools and communities.


 

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Research findings are beginning to identify factors in the development of aggressive and antisocial behavior from early childhood to adolescence and into adulthood. Prospective longitudinal and experimental studies have identified major correlates for the initiation, escalation, continuation, and cessation of serious violent offending.

Many studies indicate that a single factor or a single defining situation does not cause child and adolescent antisocial behavior. Rather, multiple factors contribute to and shape antisocial behavior over the course of development. Some factors relate to characteristics within the child, but many others relate to factors within the social environment (e.g., family, peers, school, neighborhood, and community contexts) that enable, shape, and maintain aggression, antisocial behavior, and related behavior problems.

The research on risk for aggressive, antisocial and violent behavior includes multiple aspects and stages of life, beginning with interactions in the family. Such forces as weak bonding, ineffective parenting (poor monitoring, ineffective, excessively harsh, or inconsistent discipline, inadequate super-vision), exposure to violence in the home, and a climate that supports aggression and violence puts children at risk for being violent later in life. This is particularly so for youth with problem behavior, such as early conduct and attention problems, depression, anxiety disorders, lower cognitive and verbal abilities, etc. Outside of the home, one of the major factors contributing to youth violence is the impact of peers. In the early school years, a good deal of mild aggression and violence is related to peer rejection and competition for status and attention. More serious behavior problems and violence are associated with smaller numbers of youths who band together because they are failing academically and are often rejected by other youth. Successful early adjustment at home increases the likelihood that children will overcome such individual challenges and not become violent. However, exposure to violent or aggressive behavior within a family or peer group may influence a child in that direction.

Types and Severity of Antisocial Behavior

The types and severity of antisocial behaviors exhibited by youths vary greatly and include lying, bullying, truancy, starting fights, vandalism, theft, assault, rape, and homicide. As a rule, the older the age of onset, the fewer the number of antisocial youths who will engage in seriously aggressive and violent behavior. Longitudinal studies show that many children who engage in antisocial behavior in childhood continue to do so at least through adolescence.

Longitudinal research has identified types of youth who progress to adolescent antisocial behavior, multiple pathways through which it develops and persists, and the multiple factors that shape this risk. This research has identified two types of life course trajectories: life course persistent, which is viewed as a form of psycho-

pathology, and adolescence limited, which is identified only in select social situations. The distinction between these two types of individuals is very useful, both as a way of thinking about developmental knowledge and as a tool for targeting the right interventions for antisocial youth.

Last Updated: 22 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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