• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 15th June, 2009

How antisocial behavior bridges the generation gap

It is widely accepted that parents who are involved in antisocial behaviour put their children at risk of treading a similar path. Genetic factors may account for just under half of the power in the relationship. Parenting goes some way to explaining it further: children who have ineffectual parents often end up delinquents. Findings based on data from the Rochester Intergenerational Study are shedding further light on these connections, suggesting that how antisocial mothers and fathers become poor parents may be quite different. Reported in Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, the team from the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado examined the relationship between parent adolescent delinquency, parenting skills and children’s antisocial behavior, and how they interacted with parenting stress and parent age.Mothers affected their children’s risk of going on to become delinquents nearly exclusively as a result of poor parenting. Their own antisocial behavior had no bearing on the age at which they became mothers or on how stressful they found parenting.For fathers the situation was more complex. Those who had lost contact with their children had no influence on whether they became involved in delinquent behaviour. On the other hand, fathers who had played a large role in their children’s lives were nearly as influential as mothers on their later behavior. But their own antisocial behavior as a teenager had a stronger impact. As Terence Thornberry and colleagues explain, their antisocial behavior had a “more pervasive influence on their later development”. Fathers who had been delinquent as teenagers were more likely to have children younger and more likely to find the role stressful.Both these factors affected how good they were at being parents and hence how likely their children were to be caught up in antisocial behavior. The authors conclude that efforts to prevent antisocial behaviour must acknowledge that its roots may stretch back into the teenage years of a child’s parents, and that it may have the potential to do continuing harm when their own children reach adolescence. They suggest that programs that include parenting components go a small way to addressing this issue. They also make the case for further studies of how antisocial behaviour makes the generational leap, citing structural adversity and family conflict as obvious places to begin. The Rochester Intergenerational Study that provided the team with their data, began in 1988, drawing a 1000-strong sample of 12-14 year olds from New York public schools. Children who were thought likely to become involved in antisocial behavior (boys and children living in high crime areas) were over sampled. They were interviewed every six months throughout their teenage years. In 1999 the second phase of the study began, recruiting the first-born biological children of the original participants. Six years into the study, nearly all of the 543 children eligible to participate in the second wave agreed. Data on these children are collected annually. Data on first generation antisocial behaviour is based on self-report data interviews. The second wave, from the viewpoint of the mother, was assembled using three standardised scales. See:Thornberry, TP, Freeman-Gallant and Lovegrove PJ (2009), ‘Intergenerational Linkages in Antisocial Behaviour’, Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 19, pp.80-93

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