• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 27th November, 2007

Sometimes it can be better to be in with the out-crowd

If you’re a child with behavior problems, and you don’t have a lot of friends – particularly better behaved friends – your bad behavior is likely to continue into your teens. But here’s the surprising part: lacking friends might prevent you from drinking and using drugs. These are the conclusions from a recent Canadian study.Conducted by Frank Vitaro of the University of Montreal and his colleagues, the study aimed to test an idea that has gained currency in the child research and policy world. Simply stated, it is that young children who behave poorly are at greater risk of becoming violent teens and of drinking and using drugs – because well-behaved kids don’t want to be friends with them. Thus they are left to the company of other disruptive children who reinforce their already bad behavior. While this idea has prestige, having been proposed by experts on childhood aggression Tom Dishion and Gerald Patterson, and also appeals to commonsense, it has not been well-tested. [For more about Tom Dishion, see also: Putting brain science back on the streets of Los Angeles] Vitaro’s team followed 375 children from the age of six to their mid-teens, collecting data from the children themselves, their parents, teachers, and peers to understand how their behavior and their relationships with their peers changed over the eight years of the study. They found that teens' violent behavior, at least in part, resulted from the process Dishion, Patterson, and others have described (ie. bad behavior causes kids to lose well-behaved friends and garner poorly behaved ones). However, they also found that being rejected by 'regular' kids has an upside: protection from drugs and alcohol. The explanation goes like this: as they move into adolescence most kids experiment with drinking and drugs, and they get hold of them from their friends. Kids who aren’t invited to parties where drugs and alcohol are present are less likely to use them.If future studies produce similar results, the implications are interesting. Certainly helping young children to control their behavior and develop the skills to maintain healthy friendships is important. But equally so are efforts to understand and change the teen cultures that promote substance use and abuse.• Summary of “Children's disruptiveness, peer rejection, friends' deviancy, and delinquent behaviors: A process-oriented approach” by Frank Vitaro, Sara Pedersen and Mara Brendgen in Development and Psychopathology (2007), 19: pp 433-453; also published by Cambridge University Press online April 2007.

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