• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 11th August, 2009

Oregon says down isn't the only way

There have been many attempts to describe the trajectories of young boys whose antisocial behavior leads them into a life of crime. The emphasis is often put squarely on the influence of the family. Other thinking has tended to emphasize the coercive power of children’s peers. A more complex model constructed by researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center takes into account the combined influences of family and friends and how they evolve as children grow up. And a new study published in Development and Psychopathology this month, confirms the basic principles. According to Marion Forgatch and her colleagues, the path into persistent antisocial behavior begins when adverse conditions disrupt parenting in early childhood. If parents are unable to care and discipline properly, children end up misbehaving. The refuse to obey, they whine, maybe start telling lies.When children who behave this way arrive in school, they are rejected by others who play by the rules. The pattern of social exclusion tends to repeat itself; such children gradually drift into contact with others as badly behaved. When poorly behaved children get together they learn worse habits from one another. It is when these children enter their teens, fueling each other’s sense of alienation, Forgatch and her colleagues claim, that misdemeanors can mutate into more serious and often more secret forms of antisocial behavior. Even at so early an age, the progress of children on such a downhill track is likely to be characterized by brushes with the law. As the researchers explain, “the Oregon delinquency model specifies multiple paths from children’s antisocial behavior to adolescent delinquency but only one path to adult crime.” Antisocial boys who are involved in an equally antisocial peer group are at serious risk of chronic offending through their teenage years and into adult life. Arrest before the age of 14, for example, is very ominous.Boys who get in trouble with the police at a later age may be involved in crime through their teenage years, but they are less likely to be disadvantaged in the long term and are more skilled socially. Fortunately, the die is not quite cast. Children can still be deflected from a life of crime, the Oregon team say. Here they build on previous studies that have shown that parenting training can help children behave better in early childhood. “The implicit assumption of most of these prevention studies is that early intervention prevents future involvement in adolescent and adult criminal behavior,” they write. However, relatively very few have examined how delinquency pans out during adolescence. They wanted to find out if such improvements were maintained into the teenage years and if they enabled young men at risk to avoid criminality over the life course. The effects of parenting training can be very powerful and long lasting according to the study. Children whose parents took part were less likely to be delinquent and less likely to be arrested. The intervention also delayed the age when boys were first arrested. Forgatch and her team followed the behavior trajectories of the sons of over 200 separated single mothers between 1992 and 2005. The children of separated families were chosen because they are particularly prone to disrupted parenting, so putting them at greater risk.Around two thirds of parents went on a 14-week parenting management course called Parenting Through Change which focuses on teaching parents to encourage and engage positively with their children, to set limits, to monitor behavior and to problem solve. For the purposes of the study, the curriculum was supplemented with divorce related content, including sections on emotional regulation and management of inter-parental conflict. The study drew arrest data from official records and questioned children and parents about delinquency and their association with badly behaved peers. Information about parenting was drawn from laboratory observations. See: Forgatch M, Patterson G R, Degarmo D S and Beldavs Z G (2009), “Testing the Oregon delinquency model with 9-year follow-up of the Oregon Divorce Study,” Development and Psychopathology, 21, 2, pp 637-660

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