Antisocial Behavior

views updated May 29 2018

Antisocial behavior


Antisocial behaviors are disruptive acts characterized by covert and overt hostility and intentional aggression toward others. Antisocial behaviors exist along a severity continuum and include repeated violations of social rules, defiance of authority and of the rights of others, deceitfulness, theft, and reckless disregard for self and others. Antisocial behavior can be identified in children as young as three or four years of age. If left unchecked these coercive behavior patterns will persist and escalate in severity over time, becoming a chronic behavioral disorder.


Antisocial behavior may be overt, involving aggressive actions against siblings, peers, parents, teachers, or other adults, such as verbal abuse, bullying and hitting; or covert, involving aggressive actions against property, such as theft, vandalism, and fire-setting. Covert antisocial behaviors in early childhood may include noncompliance, sneaking, lying , or secretly destroying another's property. Antisocial behaviors also include drug and alcohol abuse and high-risk activities involving self and others.


Between 4 and 6 million American children have been identified with antisocial behavior problems. These disruptive behaviors are one of the most common forms of psychopathology, accounting for half of all childhood mental health referrals.

Gender differences in antisocial behavior patterns are evident as early as age three or four. There has been far less research into the nature and development pattern of antisocial behavior in girls. Pre-adolescent boys are far more likely to engage in overtly aggressive antisocial behaviors than girls. Boys exhibit more physical and verbal aggression, whereas antisocial behavior in girls is more indirect and relational, involving harmful social manipulation of others. The gender differences in the way antisocial behavior is expressed may be related to the differing rate of maturity between girls and boys. Physical aggression is expressed at the earliest stages of development, then direct verbal threats, and, last, indirect strategies for manipulating the existing social structure.

Antisocial behaviors may have an early onset, identifiable as soon as age four, or late onset, manifesting in middle or late adolescence . Some research indicates that girls are more likely than boys to exhibit late onset antisocial behavior. Late onset antisocial behaviors are less persistent and more likely to be discarded as a behavioral strategy than those that first appear in early childhood.

As many as half of all elementary school children who demonstrate antisocial behavior patterns continue these behaviors into adolescence, and as many as 75 percent of adolescents who demonstrate antisocial behaviors continue to do so into early adulthood.

Causes and symptoms

Antisocial behavior develops and is shaped in the context of coercive social interactions within the family , community, and educational environment. It is also influenced by the child's temperament and irritability, cognitive ability, the level of involvement with deviant peers, exposure to violence, and deficit of cooperative problem-solving skills. Antisocial behavior is frequently accompanied by other behavioral and developmental problems such as hyperactivity, depression, learning disabilities, and impulsivity.

Multiple risk factors for development and persistence of antisocial behaviors include genetic, neurobiological, and environmental stressors beginning at the prenatal stage and often continuing throughout the childhood years.

Genetic factors are thought to contribute substantially to the development of antisocial behaviors. Genetic factors, including abnormalities in the structure of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, may play a role in an inherited predisposition to antisocial behaviors.

Neurobiological risks include maternal drug use during pregnancy, birth complications, low birth weight, prenatal brain damage, traumatic head injury , and chronic illness.

High-risk factors in the family setting include the following:

  • parental history of antisocial behaviors
  • parental alcohol and drug abuse
  • chaotic and unstable home life
  • absence of good parenting skills
  • use of coercive and corporal punishment
  • parental disruption due to divorce , death, or other separation
  • parental psychiatric disorders, especially maternal depression
  • economic distress due to poverty and unemployment

Heavy exposure to media violence through television, movies, Internet sites, video games , and even cartoons has long been associated with an increase in the likelihood that a child will become desensitized to violence and behave in aggressive and antisocial ways. However, research relating the use of violent video games with antisocial behavior is inconsistent and varies in design and quality, with findings of both increased and decreased aggression after exposure to violent video games.

Companions and peers are influential in the development of antisocial behaviors. Some studies of boys with antisocial behaviors have found that companions are mutually reinforcing with their talk of rule breaking in ways that predict later delinquency and substance abuse.

When to call the doctor

Parents and teachers who notice a pattern of repeated lying, cheating, stealing , bullying, hitting, noncompliance, and other disruptive behaviors should not ignore these symptoms. Early screening of at-risk children is critical to deterring development of a persistent pattern of antisocial behavior. Early detection and appropriate intervention, particularly during the preschool years and middleschool years, is the best means of interrupting the developmental trajectory of antisocial behavior patterns. Serious childhood antisocial behaviors can lead to diagnoses of conduct disorder (CD) or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Children who exhibit antisocial behaviors are at an increased risk for alcohol use disorders (AUDs).


Systematic diagnostic interviews with parents and children provide opportunity for a thorough assessment of individual risk factors and family and societal dynamics. Such assessment should include parent-adolescent relationships; peer characteristics; school, home, and community environment; and overall health of the individual.

Various diagnostic instruments have been developed for evidence-based identification of antisocial behavior in children. The onset, frequency, and severity of antisocial behaviors such as stealing, lying, cheating, sneaking, peer rejection, low academic achievement, negative attitude, and aggressive behaviors are accessed to determine appropriate intervention and treatment.


Enhanced parent-teacher communications and the availability of school psychologists and counselors trained in family intervention within the school setting are basic requirements for successful intervention and treatment of childhood antisocial behaviors.

School-based programs from early childhood onward that teach conflict resolution, emotional literacy, and anger management skills have been shown to interrupt the development of antisocial behavior in low-risk students. Students who may be at higher risk because of difficult family and environmental circumstances will benefit from more individualized prevention efforts, including counseling, academic support, social-skills training, and behavior contracting.

Academic settings with the capacity to deliver professional parental support and provide feedback in a motivating way can help parents to develop and hone effective parenting skills that may interrupt further progression of antisocial behavior patterns in their children. Access to written and video information on parenting skills and information about community family resources, as well as promotion of parent-support groups, are effective intervention strategies for changing family dynamics that shape antisocial behavior in the children.

Older students who already exhibit a persistent pattern of antisocial behavior can be helped with intensive individualized services that may involve community mental health agencies and other outside intervention.

Community-based programs, including youth centers and recreational programs with trained therapists, can provide additional support for at-risk children.


The longer antisocial behavior patterns persist, the more intractable they become. Early-onset conduct problems left untreated are more likely to result in the development of chronic antisocial behavior than if the disruptive behavior begins in adolescence. Though it is never too late to intervene, researchers warn that if by age eight a child has not learned ways other than coercion to meet his social goals, he has a high chance of continuing with antisocial behavior throughout his lifetime.


Alcohol use disorder (AUD) The repetitive, long-term ingestion of alcohol in ways that impair psychosocial functioning and health, leading to problems with personal relationships, school, or work. Alcohol use disorders include alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse, alcohol intoxication, and alcohol withdrawal.

Coercive behavior Maladaptive behaviors engaged in as a means of avoiding or escaping aversive events. Coercive behavior may include whining, noncompliance, and lying.

Conduct disorder A behavioral and emotional disorder of childhood and adolescence. Children with a conduct disorder act inappropriately, infringe on the rights of others, and violate societal norms.

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) A persistent disruptive behavior that includes three or more of the following types of antisocial behaviors occurring frequently over a six-month period: loss of temper; arguments with adults; defiance or refusal to comply with adult's requests/rules; annoying others deliberately and being easily annoyed;, blaming others with unwillingness to accept responsibility for mistakes or behavior; angry, resentful, spiteful, and vindictive behaviors.

Longitudinal studies have found that as many as 71 percent of chronic juvenile offenders had progressed from childhood antisocial behaviors through a history of early arrests to a pattern of chronic law breaking.


Healthy nutrition and prenatal care, a safe and secure family and social environment, early bonding with an emotionally mature and healthy parent, role models for prosocial behaviors, non-coercive methods of parenting, peer relationships with prosocial individuals, and early intervention when problems first appear are all excellent means of assuring development of prosocial behaviors and reducing and extinguishing antisocial behaviors in children.

Parental concerns

Parents may hesitate to seek help for children with antisocial behavior patterns out of fear of the child being negatively labeled or misdiagnosed. Almost all children will engage in some form of antisocial behavior at various stages of development. Skilled parents will be able to lovingly confront the child and help the child recognize that certain behaviors are unacceptable. However if these conduct disturbances persist and worsen, they should be taken seriously as precursors to more serious problems. Early intervention is important for the sake of the child and the entire family system.



Coloroso, Barbara. The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Connor, Daniel F. Aggression and Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press, 2002.

Reid, John B., et al. Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002.

Walker, Hill M., et. al. Antisocial Behavior in School, 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.


Clark, Duncan B., et al., "Childhood Antisocial Behavior and Adolescent Alcohol Use Disorders." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, November 2002. Available online at <> (accessed October 11, 2004).

Wood, Derek. "What is Antisocial Personality Disorder?" Mental Health Matters. Available online at <> (accessed October 11, 2004).

Clare Hanrahan

Antisocial Behavior

views updated Jun 08 2018

Antisocial behavior

A pattern of behavior that is verbally or physically harmful to other people, animals, or property, including behavior that severely violates social expectations for a particular environment.

Antisocial behavior can be broken down into two components: the presence of antisocial (i.e., angry, aggressive, or disobedient) behavior and the absence of prosocial (i.e., communicative, affirming, or cooperative) behavior. Most children exhibit some antisocial behavior during their development, and different children demonstrate varying levels of prosocial and antisocial behavior. Some children may exhibit high levels of both antisocial and prosocial behaviors; for example, the popular but rebellious child. Some, however, may exhibit low levels of both types of behaviors; for example, the withdrawn, thoughtful child. High levels of antisocial behavior are considered a clinical disorder. Young children may exhibit hostility towards authority, and be diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder . Older children may lie, steal, or engage in violent behaviors, and be diagnosed with conduct disorder . Mental health professionals agree, and rising rates of serious school disciplinary problems, delinquency, and violent crime indicate, that antisocial behavior in general is increasing. Thirty to 70% of childhood psychiatric admissons are for disruptive behavior disorders, and diagnoses of behavior disorders are increasing overall. A small percentage of antisocial children grow up to become adults with antisocial personality disorder , and a greater proportion suffer from the social, academic, and occupational failures resulting from their antisocial behavior.

Causes and characteristics

Factors that contribute to a particular child's antisocial behavior vary, but usually they include some form of family problems (e.g., marital discord, harsh or inconsistent disciplinary practices or actual child abuse , frequent changes in primary caregiver or in housing, learning or cognitive disabilities, or health problems). Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is highly correlated with antisocial behavior. A child may exhibit antisocial behavior in response to a specific stressor (such as the death of a parent or a divorce ) for a limited period of time, but this is not considered a psychiatric condition. Children and adolescents with antisocial behavior disorders have an increased risk of accidents, school failure, early alcohol and substance use, suicide , and criminal behavior. The elements of a moderate to severely antisocial personality are established as early as kindergarten. Antisocial children score high on traits of impulsiveness, but low on anxiety and reward-dependencethat is, the degree to which they value, and are motivated by, approval from others. Yet underneath their tough exterior antisocial children have low self-esteem .

A salient characteristic of antisocial children and adolescents is that they appear to have no feelings. Besides showing no care for others' feelings or remorse for hurting others, they tend to demonstrate none of their own feelings except anger and hostility, and even these are communicated by their aggressive acts and not necessarily expressed through affect . One analysis of antisocial behavior is that it is a defense mechanism that helps the child to avoid painful feelings, or else to avoid the anxiety caused by lack of control over the environment .

Antisocial behavior may also be a direct attempt to alter the environment. Social learning theory suggests that negative behaviors are reinforced during childhood by parents, caregivers, or peers. In one formulation, a child's negative behavior (e.g., whining, hitting) initially serves to stop the parent from behaving in ways that are aversive to the child (the parent may be fighting with a partner, yelling at a sibling, or even crying). The child will apply the learned behavior at school, and a vicious cycle sets in: he or she is rejected, becomes angry and attempts to force his will or assert his pride, and is then further rejected by the very peers from whom he might learn more positive behaviors. As the child matures, "mutual avoidance" sets in with the parent(s), as each party avoids the negative behaviors of the other. Consequently, the child receives little care or supervision and, especially during adolescence , is free to join peers who have similarly learned antisocial means of expression.

Different forms of antisocial behavior will appear in different settings. Antisocial children tend to minimize the frequency of their negative behaviors, and any reliable assessment must involve observation by mental health professionals, parents, teachers, or peers.


The most important goals of treating antisocial behavior are to measure and describe the individual child's or adolescent's actual problem behaviors and to effectively teach him or her the positive behaviors that should be adopted instead. In severe cases, medication will be administered to control behavior, but it should not be used as substitute for therapy. Children who experience explosive rage respond well to medication. Ideally, an interdisciplinary team of teachers, social workers, and guidance counselors will work with parents or caregivers to provide universal or "wrap-around" services to help the child in all aspects of his or her life: home, school, work, and social contexts. In many cases, parents themselves need intensive training on modeling and reinforcing appropriate behaviors in their child, as well as in providing appropriate discipline to prevent inappropriate behavior.

A variety of methods may be employed to deliver social skills training, but especially with diagnosed antisocial disorders, the most effective methods are systemic therapies which address communication skills among the whole family or within a peer group of other antisocial children or adolescents. These probably work best because they entail actually developing (or redeveloping) positive relationships between the child or adolescent and other people. Methods used in social skills training include modeling, role playing, corrective feedback, and token reinforcement systems. Regardless of the method used, the child's level of cognitive and emotional development often determines the success of treatment. Adolescents capable of learning communication and problem-solving skills are more likely to improve their relations with others.

Unfortunately, conduct disorders, which are the primary form of diagnosed antisocial behavior, are highly resistant to treatment. Few institutions can afford the comprehensiveness and intensity of services required to support and change a child's whole system of behavior; in most cases, for various reasons, treatment is terminated (usually by the client) long before it is completed. Often, the child may be fortunate to be diagnosed at all. Schools are frequently the first to address behavior problems, and regular classroom teachers only spend a limited amount of time with individual students. Special education teachers and counselors have a better chance at instituting long-term treatment programsthat is, if the student stays in the same school for a period of years. One study showed teenage boys with conduct disorder had had an average of nine years of treatment by 15 different institutions. Treatments averaged seven months each.

Studies show that children who are given social skills instruction decrease their antisocial behavior, especially when the instruction is combined with some form of supportive peer group or family therapy . But the long-term effectiveness of any form of therapy for antisocial behavior has not been demonstrated. The fact that peer groups have such a strong influence on behavior suggests that schools that employ collaborative learning and the mainstreaming of antisocial students with regular students may prove most beneficial to the antisocial child. Because the classroom is a natural environment, learned skills do not need to be transferred. By judiciously dividing the classroom into groups and explicitly stating procedures for group interactions, teachers can create opportunities for positive interaction between antisocial and other students.

See also Antisocial personality disorder; Conduct disorder; Oppositional-defiant disorder; Peer acceptance

Further Reading

Evans, W. H., et al. Behavior and Instructional Management: An Ecological Approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1989.

Landau, Elaine. Teenage Violence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Julian Messner, 1990.

McIntyre, T. The Behavior Management Handbook: Setting Up Effective Behavior Management Systems. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1989.

Merrell, K. W. School Social Behavior Scales. Bradon, VT: Clinical Psychology Pub. Co., 1993.

Redl, Fritz. Children Who Hate : The Disorganization and Breakdown of Behavior Controls. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Shoemaker, Donald J. Theories of Delinquency: An Examination of Explanations of Delinquent Behavior, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Whitehead, John T. and Steven P. Lab. Juvenile Justice: An Introduction. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Pub. Co., 1990.

Wilson, Amos N. Understanding Black Adolescent Male Violence: Its Prevention and Remediation. Afrikan World Infosystems, 1992.

Antisocial Behavior

views updated May 23 2018


Antisocial behavior consists of acts that impose physical or psychological harm on other people or their property. Lying, stealing, assaulting others, being cruel to others, being argumentative, and being sexually promiscuous are all examples of antisocial behavior. Such behavior may sometimes constitute a violation of legal codes, and it is often accompanied by disturbances of thought or emotion. It may be distinguished from delinquency, which is a more serious form of antisocial behavior and involves the breaking of criminal laws. It may also be distinguished from antisocial personality disorder (also known as sociopathy or psychopathy), in which antisocial behavior is longstanding and continues in a variety of areas during adulthood(e.g., irresponsible parenting, unlawful behaviors, repeated aggressiveness, repeated lying, reckless endangerment of others). Research indicates that family environment, personality characteristics, peer environment, and social contexts all play a role in influencing the development and maintenance of antisocial behavior.

Engaging in antisocial behavior poses great risk to an individual's mental and physical health. It puts one at increased risk for alcoholism, cigarette smoking, illegal drug use, high-risk sexual behavior, depression, and for engaging in violent acts towards others and towards the self. The health risks of interpersonal and intrapersonal violence are readily apparent. It is also well known that substance abuse poses serious health hazards through the direct bodily harm that these substances cause, as well as the indirect effects that result from impaired judgment (e.g., automobile accidents, high-risk sexual behavior). Anti-social behavior has additional health consequences by virtue of its relationship with high-risk sexual behavior and depression. High-risk sexual behavior poses life threatening consequences due to the risk of HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Depression, though not life threatening itself, is characterized by negative emotional, cognitive, and motivational symptoms; low self-esteem; and a generally diminished quality of life. By placing individuals at risk for these behaviors and conditions, antisocial behavior is clearly associated with undesirable mental and physical health outcomes that may ultimately lead to loss of life.

Amidst the current theories and models that have been advanced to explain the causes of anti-social behavior, three have been particularly useful in their ability to inform prevention and treatment efforts. Coercion theory proposes that antisocial behavior is carried out to force other people to give in to the aversive demands that the individual is imposing. Examples of coercive antisocial behavior include hitting a classmate so that he will stop teasing or having a temper tantrum in response to a parent who refuses to buy candy. The social developmental model hypothesizes that a lack of belief in the moral order, perceived rewards for antisocial interaction and involvement in related behavior, commitment to antisocial lines of action and people, and belief in antisocial values are direct predictors of antisocial behavior. A more general developmental model of child antisocial behavior theorizes that maternal smoking, substance abuse, and poor nutrition during pregnancy are antecedents to the child's antisocial behavior. Thus, this model purports that poor health outcomes are the antecedents, as well as the consequences, of antisocial behavior. This model further hypothesizes that parental style, child characteristics, and characteristics of the school, home, and primary caretaker that occur later in development are antecedents of later antisocial behavior.

Efforts to prevent antisocial behavior are mostly directed at adolescents. The nature of a prevention intervention is based on its underlying theoretical approach and the age group of the individuals being targeted. Interventions that target the prenatal and early childhood environment focus on maternal nutrition, maternal health, smoking reduction, and family problem-solving skills. Interventions that target the family environment seek to facilitate the development of noncoercive discipline, strategies for improving social and educational development, and strategies for improving parental involvement in school and extracurricular activities. Interventions that target the school environment focus on supporting academic success, modifying school environments to inhibit aggressive behavior, increasing academic organization, and teaching positive peer relations. Treatment efforts have largely been based on cognitive-behavioral training, which involves attempts to modify moral reasoning, increase one's ability to take the perspective of another, and to increase frustration tolerance and the ability to resolve interpersonal dilemmas with prosocial solutions. Such treatment also seeks to modify family interactions and create improved parental management and a more positive family atmosphere.

Kimberly R. Jacob Arriola

(see also: Behavior, Health-Related; Domestic Violence; Family Health; Reckless Driving; Substance Abuse, Definition of; Violence )


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Dishion, T. J.; French, D. C.; and Patterson, G. R. (1995). "The Development and Ecology of Antisocial Behavior." In Developmental Psychology: Risk, Disorder, and Adaptation, Vol. 2, eds. D. Cicchetti and D. J. Cohen. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rosenhan, D. L., and Seligman, M. E. P. Abnormal Psychology. New York: W. W. Norton.

Snyder, J. J. (1995). "Coercion: A Two-Level Theory of Antisocial Behavior." In Theories of Behavior Therapy: Exploring Behavior Change, eds. W. O'Donohue and L. Krasner. Washington, DC: American Psychologi cal Association.

Stoff, D. M.; Breiling, J.; and Maser, J. D. (1997). Handbook of Antisocial Behavior. New York: Wiley.

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Antisocial Behavior

views updated May 14 2018


Antisocial behavior in children is associated with social impairment and psychological dysfunction, such as oppositional/defiant disorders, conduct disorders, and antisocial personality disorders. These disorders often involve engaging in delinquent behavior, but they are far from synonymous with criminal activity. In preschoolers, antisocial behavior can include temper tantrums, quarreling with peers, and physical aggression (i.e., hitting, kicking, biting). Parents often report difficulties in handling and controlling the child. Comorbidity (visible problems that may not be the child's only problem) is often found because antisocial behavior is associated with hyperactivity, depression, and reading difficulties. Follow-up studies indicate that antisocial behavior in toddlers often decreases with age, as children learn to control their behavior or benefit from the intervention of professionals in the field. Individual differences dictate the tendency of children to engage in antisocial behavior, and this tendency may change over time according to the overall level of antisocial behavior, situational variations, and the persistence or nonpersistence of antisocial behavior as individuals grow older.



McCord, Joan, and Richard Tremblay, eds. Preventing Antisocial Behavior: Interventions from Birth through Adolescence. New York: Guilford Press, 1992.

Moffitt, T. E. "Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behaviour: A Developmental Taxonomy." Psychological Review 100, no. 4 (1993):674-701.

Rutter, Michael, Henri Giller, and Ann Hagell. Antisocial Behaviour by Young People. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tremblay, Richard. "The Development of Aggressive Behaviour during Childhood: What Have We Learned in the Past Century?"International Journal of Behavioral Development 24 (2000):129-141.

Anne I. H.Borge

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