Clinical and Research News
Adult Criminality May Be Rooted In Troubling Childhood Behaviors
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 1 page 18-18

If children aged 5 or older act impulsively or in an antisocial way, they may be at risk of adult criminality, various studies have suggested. But how about children who are just 3 years old: Might any of their behaviors foreshadow adult criminal behavior?

The answer is yes, according to a study in the September 2001 British Journal of Psychiatry. It was conducted by Jim Stevenson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Southampton in England, and Robert Goodman, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at King’s College in London, England.

Back in 1972-73, the parents of 828 3-year-olds were interviewed about whether their child engaged in various problem behaviors such as worries, hyperactivity, attention seeking, temper tantrums, difficulties with siblings or other children, not minding one’s parents, eating lead or had problems with bowel and bladder control, trouble concentrating, poor appetite, and so forth. This work was undertaken by Stevenson when he was with the Institute of Child Health at the University of London, and in conjunction with two other investigators.

Then in 1993 Stevenson and Goodman traced, with the help of the Criminal Records Office for England and Wales, which of the 828 children, who were now young adults, had been convicted of crimes since becoming adults. Eighty-one (10 percent) had been convicted, and 26 of the 81 had been convicted of violent crimes, they found.

Then Stevenson and Goodman examined their data to see whether they could find any statistically significant relationships between the presence of certain behavior problems at age 3 and adult convictions. They could, they found.

Temper tantrums, hyperactivity, and not minding one’s parents were found to be significantly linked to adult criminal offenses. Problems with bowel and bladder control were also associated with adult convictions, but this relationship disappeared when gender and social development were taken into consideration.

Thus, temper tantrums, excessive physical activity, and management difficulties at age 3 may help to predict which individuals will go on to commit crimes as adults, Stevenson and Goodman concluded in their report.

They cautioned, of course, that temper tantrums, excessive physical activity, and not minding one’s parents at age 3 do not necessarily mean that a child is going to commit crimes as an adult. Still, they suggested that targeting children who engage in such behaviors at age 3 might help keep them from becoming criminals later.

Psychiatric News asked Stevenson what kinds of preventive measures might be tried. "Parent training," he replied. "Parent training has been shown to be effective with a slightly older group; the same principles apply with younger children."

Felton Earls, M.D., a professor of child psychiatry and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, is familiar with the research by Stevenson and Goodman and commented about it to Psychiatric News: "I think it is quite a good paper. . . .The long-term follow-up provides convincing evidence on the threads of behavioral continuity."

Their report would have benefited, he noted, if they had included more evidence of the types of early-intervention programs that successfully reduce later antisocial behaviors. ▪

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