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Cascading effect of even minor early problems may explain serious teen violence

How do minor behavior problems and experiences early in life lead to serious acts of violence in teenagers? A group of researchers has found that the answer may lie in a cascading effect in which early life experiences lead to behaviors and new experiences that lead to yet other experiences that culminate in serious violent behavior.

The researchers found that children who had social and academic problems in elementary school were more likely to have parents who withdrew from supervision and monitoring when the children entered middle school. When this happened, children were more likely to make friends with other children who had deviant behavior, and this ultimately was more likely to lead teens to engage in serious and sometimes costly acts of violence. Interestingly, violent outcomes in girls followed largely the same developmental path as those for boys.

"The findings indicate that these trajectories are not inevitable but can be deflected at each subsequent era in development, through interactions with peers, school, and parents along the way," notes Kenneth A. Dodge, William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and psychology and neuroscience, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, and the study's lead author. "Successful early intervention could redirect paths of antisocial development to prevent serious violent behavior in adolescence."

Dodge conducted the study with researchers in the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group at the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Washington, Tufts University, the University of Alabama, and the University of South Carolina. The study appears in the November/December 2008 issue of the journal Child Development.

The scientists followed 754 children from 27 schools in four areas of the United States, collecting annual reports by the children, their parents, peers, and observers, as well as school records from kindergarten through 11th grade. Through a novel approach that goes beyond measuring risk factors in a summary fashion, the study suggests how serious violence develops across the life span from early childhood through adolescence.

The researchers found that children who are born into economically disadvantaged environments were more likely to have parents who practiced harsh and inconsistent parenting, perhaps because of the stress of their circumstances. This parenting, in turn, was more likely to lead to early, minor social and cognitive problems in the children when they started school. From there, the behavior problems cascaded.

The researchers caution that their model should not be used to conclude that an antisocial 5-year-old is destined to be a violent teenager, noting that while the risk is substantial, it is not certain. In contrast, the study points to ways that this trajectory can be deflected by life events, and it cites implications for preventive intervention.


Contact: Andrea Browning
Society for Research in Child Development

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