Aggression in children is a problem that garners a disproportionate amount of attention in the media and throughout society, especially when considering news accounts of school shootings and youth violence. While chronic violent offending is relatively rare in youth, and the majority of juvenile offenders desist from criminal activities in their early to mid-20s, boys, gang members, and youth of color continue to both engage and become victims of violent and antisocial behaviors in alarming numbers. Determining how child aggression develops and what the outcomes of such behaviors are is a critical topic for parents, educators, criminal justice personnel, and psychologists and psychiatrists dealing with childhood aggression in communities, classrooms, and neighborhoods. Child aggression refers to attitudes, temperament, or acts in youth under the age of 18 years old that are recognized as antisocial or problem behaviors.
The Development Of Serious Offending Behaviors In Children
Patterns of serious offending commonly first emerge during the critical stage of human development known for impulsive, irrational, and immature behaviors— adolescence. The turbulence of adolescence provides a perfect opportunity to challenge one’s boundaries, and the chance to display irrational, immature actions or thoughts may lead some youngsters down pathways toward aggressive, violent, and/or antisocial behaviors. For a few of these youth, this violence trajectory will continue into adulthood. Troubled youth in the criminal justice system have often reported various familial and psychopathological problems that have been linked to delinquency and adult offending. Recent longitudinal studies have also shown that youngsters in early and middle childhood frequently exhibited multiple problem behaviors across various domains that began at young ages. A commonality in many of these troubled youth, especially those seen in the criminal justice system, is that they express aggressive tendencies.
Childhood And Adolescent Psychiatric Disorders Associated With Violence
Youth with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been shown in some scholarly studies to be at greater risk of aggressive or violent behaviors as adolescents or adults. ODD and CD are common disruptive disorders within the period of childhood or adolescence. These disorders are frequently diagnosed together with ADHD in youngsters with severe behavioral problems. Whereas ODD includes less serious behaviors such as defiance, anger, or annoyance of classmates or authority figures, CD involves more serious symptoms such as law-breaking behaviors (property destruction or status offenses such as curfew violations), theft, and acting aggressively toward people or animals. Youth may outgrow ODD or continue on and progress to CD at very young ages. CD is also the precursor to the more serious personality disorder in adulthood known as antisocial personality disorder (APD). Children with early onset and persistence of symptoms have been found to have poorer lifetime prognoses and to have better chances of continuance of antisocial behaviors into adulthood.
ADHD is the leading psychiatric disorder in American children, with current U.S. estimates of 10 million people having this illness. ADHD has two primary types, inattentive and hyperactive, and outcomes for children with this form of mental health disorder may vary widely depending on the severity and type of symptoms. Whereas inattentive aspects of ADHD have been found to be associated with poor academic outcomes, the impulsivity-hyperactive type has been more commonly linked with poor life course outcomes such as aggression and violence. Youth identified as ADHD have difficulty concentrating, paying attention, following instructions, and may be impulsive. This impulsivity element for hyperactive ADHD children has been linked with increased risk of aggressive behaviors over the life course and is the major focus of research looking at the link between ADHD and violence. However, it should be noted that studies investigating the relationship between these childhood disorders and later violence have produced conflicted findings depending on the sample sizes, populations, study design, and specific measurements or scales used.
In addition to these disorders common in childhood and adolescence, several other forms of mental illness have been shown to be associated with violence propensity that commonly have an onset prior to age 18. These include mood disorders such as major depressive disorder (MDD) and dysthymia, and substance use disorders (SUDs) typically involving alcohol and illicit drug use.
Research has linked mood disorders such as MDD and dysthymia with interpersonal violence, but the research on depression has been somewhat recent with regard to children and adolescents. Some studies have reported that depressed persons are most at risk of hurting themselves, especially depressed females who tend to internalize their problems. However, some scholars have argued that males with the disorder may have a form of “hidden depression” that explains their violent acts. The reason for their violent behaviors, depressive symptoms, may be easily overlooked in light of their antisocial actions. As males are prone to externalizing behaviors (or acting out), it is possible that depressive symptoms may be disguised by aggression and thus treated more as a disruptive disorder than as a mood disorder.
Finally, SUDs have the strongest link of all the psychiatric disorders with interpersonal violence. For young people, experimenting with alcohol and drugs is seen as a right of passage into adulthood, with a large majority of youngsters admitting substance use or abuse prior to leaving high school. There are dangers in using and abusing such substances, however. A large body of research indicates that comorbidity of other forms of mental health disorders and SUDs in youngsters increases the risk of aggressive behaviors. Some illicit drugs actually cause psychotic symptoms, while others have been found to make permanent chemical and physiological changes in the brain. Alcohol is one of the most common denominators in violent encounters between people, with up to half of all serious violent crimes having alcohol involved.
Together, research focusing on ODD, CD, ADHD, mood disorders, and SUDs offers promising insight into the etiology of childhood aggression as a predictor of later serious offending behaviors in adolescents and adults. Such endeavors have important public policy relevance as we develop more effective preventions, interventions, and treatments geared at helping identify young, chronic offenders before they commit seriously violent crimes against other persons.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
- Connor, D. F. (2002). Aggression and antisocial behavior in children and adolescents: Research and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.
- Loeber, R., & Farrington, D. P. (Eds.). (1998). Serious and violent juvenile offenders: Risk factors and successful interventions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Quinsey, V. L., Skilling, T. A., Lalumiere, M. L., & Craig, W. M. (2004). Juvenile delinquency: Understanding the origins of individual differences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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