The key predictor of antisocial behavior and violent crime (as opposed to nonviolent crime) is poor emotion regulation in early childhood.
A very small group of boys grow up to become involved in persistent antisocial behavior and violent offending. Research has confirmed that there are reliable predictors of antisocial behavior in boys as early as the age of two or three.
A key predictor of violent crime (as opposed to nonviolent crime) is poor emotion regulation in early childhood. Where this is linked to persistent conduct problems through childhood, particularly when combined with hyperactivity/attention problems, there is a correlation with male violence and antisocial behavior in adolescence and early adulthood.
The problem mainly relates to boys. Research has suggested that the male brain is more vulnerable to adverse influences in early childhood. See Male violence: Early childhood development predictors.
The research suggests that violence prevention programs should prioritise the development of self-regulation skills in boys living in urban poverty, through working directly with them and through parenting programs. Some programs have already been successful in this regard. The High-Scope Perry Preschool Study reduced early violent antisocial behavior by targeting self-regulation skills in early childhood. Other programs, such as the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) curriculum and Family Check-Up, have improved children’s emotion regulation and reduced conduct problems. Positive parenting is often associated with the improvement in child conduct in these programs.
Stephanie Sitnick and colleagues have carried out research into early childhood precursors of male violence and antisocial behavior in young adulthood. They studied data from the Pitt Mother & Child Project, a study that followed low-income high-risk youth from the age of one until they were 20 years old; 310 families participated at the start, and 256 were still going at the end. The researchers measured child oppositional behavior, child emotion regulation and quality of the home environment. They also measured conduct problems throughout the period (physical aggression, oppositional behavior, temper tantrums) and hyperactivity/impulsivity/low attention. At 20 years, they measured violence and antisocial behavior both through court records and by interviewing the young adults. Their key finding was the link between poor early emotion regulation and adult antisocial behavior and violence.
A considerable amount of other research has linked early childhood development problems with later male violence and antisocial behavior, particularly impulsive, reactive crimes. Correlates include:
- impairments in early executive function
- poorer recognition of facial emotions linked to antisocial behavior
- poor early attachment and rejecting parenting
- oppositional behavior in early childhood
- poor self-control, particularly for those living in poverty.
Other factors linked to violence and antisocial behavior, reviewed by Adrian Raine, include the following.
Genetics: Studies of aggression in identical versus nonidentical twins show 65% heritability for aggression. Heritability for domestic violence is over 50%. Heritability relates more to impulsive/reactive violence. The genetics are complex and the only single gene found to occur more in violent offenders is MAOA (Monoamine Oxidase-A).
Brain impairments: Neurological impairments can be seen in several parts of violent offenders’ brains relating to emotion regulation, moral decision-making and impulse control. In particular, reduced structure and reduced glucose metabolism is often observed in the prefrontal cortex. The striatum is also more likely to be enlarged. The striatum is associated with the reward system and may suggest an oversensitivity to rewards in violent offenders.
Physical influences: The research suggests a variety of physical predictors of antisocial behavior and violence.
- Poor prenatal nutrition is associated with increased risk of antisocial personality disorder in adulthood. Child malnutrition is linked to aggression in childhood. One fatty acid critical for brain development, omega-3, is not produced by the body but is present in some foods, such as fish—and countries with diets high in fish have lower murder rates.
- Maternal cigarette smoking during pregnancy is linked to persistent offending. These links are stronger when other sources of stress exist, such as single-parent family status or an unwanted pregnancy.
- Alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been shown in many studies to be a risk factor for adult antisocial behavior and violence. Paternal alcohol consumption is also linked, possibly through epigenetic inheritance.
- Some birth complications, such as hypoxia, are linked to adult impulsive violent
- Lead exposure has been linked to adult antisocial behavior and violence. Lead is neurotoxic and affects boys more than girls, another indication of boys’ increased vulnerability to adverse influences in early childhood.
- Some traumatic brain injuries are linked to later violent behaviors.
Header photo: Ceci. Creative Commons.
Sitnick SL, Galán CA & Shaw DS (2019), Early childhood predictors of boys’ antisocial and violent behavior in early adulthood, Infant Mental Health Journal 40
Raine A (2019), A neurodevelopmental perspective on male violence, Infant Mental Health Journal 40