Could your children become criminals? Margaret O' Rourke looks at signs of violent behaviour researchers say can be indentified by age two

By Margaret O' Rourke

SAT 22 MAR 2003

JULIA and Peter Cooper (not their real names) used to laugh about their boys getting up to mischief. ``We just thought it was typical boy stuff. They were noisy and very active,'' Julia says. ``But looking back now I can see there were worrying signs. For instance my youngest son, Robbie, nearly burnt our house down lighting fires, and both boys had trouble at school from the start.'' The boys' risk-taking behaviour escalated, resulting in Robbie's death at the age of 17. His brother Adrian is now in his 20s and his parents know very little about his life.

It's not hard to understand why parents can be confused about what constitutes normal teenage behaviour and what is a sign of more violent tendencies. Every week television stations and newspapers run stories about young Australians being involved in car theft, break-ins, rape, fights, vandalism, drugs and prostitution.

But research released last month from the Australian Temperament Project claims that it is possible to pick up early warning signs that children may be heading for delinquency, drug-taking and criminal behaviour. Some experts claim children who go on to develop delinquent behaviour are different from their peers from as early as two years of age.

The Australian Temperament Project has followed 2443 Victorian children and their parents from infancy in 1982 to adulthood. The children involved in the study, which is run by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, are now aged between 19 and 20 years. The study has enabled researchers to track the children's temperament, behaviour, academic results, health, the parenting styles they were exposed to, along with family functioning, social and emotional adjustment and socio-economic influences.

The institute, together with Crime Prevention Victoria, has used data from the study to produce a report that analyses patterns and precursors of teenage anti-social behaviour. Diana Smart, a research fellow at the institute and one of the report's authors, says some findings of the study are not a surprise. ``For instance, a higher proportion of males than females engage in violent anti-social acts such as physical fighting (for example 52 per cent of males at 13-14 years compared to 15 per cent of females),'' Smart says. ``But one of the most interesting findings of the study is that children who go on to engage in teenage delinquency and criminal behaviour are already different from their peers by the early years of childhood, even at the age of five or six.''

The study divided the children into three groups. The first were children who displayed little or no teenage anti-social behaviour; the second group experimented with anti-social behaviour during adolescence, and the third had a persistent pattern of anti-social behaviour during their teenage years.

By the age of five those in the ``persistent'' group were already characteristically aggressive, impulsive, with poor concentration and poor self-control. By late childhood they were more likely to have teamed up with anti-social buddies, have poor relationships with parents and to display aggressive and hyperactive behaviour.

The second group were the ``experimenters''. These children were similar to the ``low/non anti-social group'' until puberty. At this time they became more like the persistent group: they were attracted to risk-taking, experienced more difficulties at school and with authority figures, were spending time with anti-social friends, and were more often involved in fighting, stealing, vandalism and substance use. By late adolescence the experimental group had generally settled down while the persistent group continued or worsened.

``This information is important because if we can identify children at risk of delinquency early, we may be able to intervene and guide them along a better path,''. Smart says. The research suggests parents, teachers and policy-makers should consider early primary school as a critical time to intervene and possibly prevent a progression to anti-social behaviour among at-risk children. ``Intervention programs, such as home visiting programs during infancy and early childhood, may also be beneficial in helping to prevent the development of problems before they even occur,'' says Smart.

Health professionals are concerned that these types of conduct disorders are not being picked up early enough to help those at risk. Conduct disorder is defined as persistent anti-social behaviour severe enough to interfere with the child's ability to form relationships and learn. It is characterised by behaviour such as disobedience, rudeness, violent outbursts, lying, stealing, vandalism and aggression. It is the most common psychiatric disorder, occurring among 5 per cent of children who live in urban areas. Children who go on to develop conduct disorder are often persistently aggressive and disobedient as toddlers. Parents often describe them as destroying household property, and having poor sleep patterns, frequent crying, speech difficulties, inability to sit still and restlessness. Sometimes the parents are not in a situation to adequately deal with the child's problems because they may have problems of their own. Conduct disorder is more common in families where the mother is depressed, where one of the parents has engaged in criminal behaviour or substance abuse and where discipline is inconsistent and harsh.

Families such as the Coopers feel that early intervention may have helped them manage their children's difficulties, and perhaps even saved Robbie's life. ``We just didn't have the skills to cope with such challenging children,'' Julia says. ``We were stable, loving parents, always there for them, but we couldn't get the help we needed to get them under control.''

By the time the boys were in late primary school it was obvious they were seriously troubled. ``We moved to Sydney from Wagga, and they immediately teamed up with other low achievers looking for trouble.''

The next 10 years were a terrifying ordeal for the Coopers. Despite parental efforts the boys were accountable to noone; they skipped school, went missing and abused drugs and alcohol. Julia and Peter felt under siege in their own house as the boys and their like-minded friends hung around, swearing and drinking. ``Things were out of our control and we had noone to turn to. The boys didn't want structure or good habits. ``They were both talented sportsmen but they hated all organised activity including sport. They acted on impulse and whatever felt good at the time. They were emotionally distant and abusive if we tried to reason with them.''

Exhausted and broken-hearted, Julia and Peter left the boys with friends to attend an overseas conference for a break and to repair the fractures that were beginning to appear in their once-strong marriage. However, their friends were unable to control the boys and they broke back into the family home. ``By the time we got home two weeks later the house was more or less destroyed. Precious things like wedding presents were broken and the condition of the house was beyond belief.''

At this stage Julia discovered Tough Love, a support group for parents struggling with challenging children. Julia says Tough Love was a great help, bolstering her flagging self-esteem and giving her a framework to cope with her children. It also introduced her to other parents who were going through similar problems. Julia realised she had a right to some rules in her own house. She stopped taking responsibility for the boys' actions and stopped trying to ``rescue'' them.

The worst fear for a parent of a child with conduct disorder is the possibility they will harm themselves while engaging in risk-taking behaviour. ``Peter and I worried about the boys constantly. We knew the risks (they were taking), but nothing prepared us for the death of our son Robbie. ``He was drunk and walking along railway tracks when he was hit by a train. He was killed instantly. Our older son Adrian didn't cope with his brother's death. They were best mates -- literally partners in crime. He disappeared for months, spiralling deeper into drug abuse. He began a relationship with Robbie's girlfriend (also a drug addict) and now they have two little boys in and out of foster care.''

The disturbing thing for Julia is that her father was an alcoholic who was abusive. ``He was really a very horrible man. He was cruel and destructive. The sad thing is that Adrian sometimes reminds me of him.''

Child psychiatrist Adair Heath, director of inpatient services at the Mater Child and Youth Mental Health Service in Brisbane, says he has seen this before in his 35 years in child psychiatry. ``Sometimes it seems that these problems can skip a generation. It is tragic when one generation manages to break the cycle of abuse and anti-social behaviour only to face it again in their own children.''

While Heath cautions against over-zealous early identification programs, he is convinced appropriate early intervention helps. ``Identifying children early as being at risk of conduct disorder can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously not all naughty children will grow up to have conduct disorder. However, there are some serious warning signs that should ring alarm bells for teachers and parents,'' he says.

Two of the strongest early warning signs are fire-lighting and cruelty to animals. ``Fire-starters are at a greater risk of conduct disorder. It is a pretty good sign that intervention is needed,'' Heath says. ``Cruelty to animals is an even more disturbing sign. It is a pretty good indicator of a child that has very little ability for empathy or caring. These signs together would be of great concern.''

Parenting is also an important factor in the development of conduct disorder. ``The child's family environment is influential in the development of conduct disorder. For instance, inconsistent, harsh discipline with little or no warmth in the family dynamics is common with these kids. Often the families are suffering social and economic disadvantage and the parents may be struggling with their own problems, so they find it difficult to assist the child,'' Heath says.

Recent research supports the idea that early identification of those at risk of conduct disorder is both possible and helpful, he says. ``Multi-systemic therapy is an example of an excellent intervention. In this system a highly trained therapist works with a case load of just two to four families. The therapist is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and goes into the child's home and school to help the child and the family overcome the factors in the youth's environment that are contributing to his or her behaviour problems. This may include assisting the parents to find adequate employment, or deal with their own substance abuse or mental health issues. Other areas might pertain to the child's individual weaknesses such as poor problem-solving skills, academic difficulties, anger management and associating with deviant peers,'' says Heath.

``Perhaps with early intervention things could have turned out differently for our boys,'' says Julia Cooper. ``But I guess now we'll never know.''


Warning signs

SOME behaviours typical of a child with conduct disorder may include:

Lying and stealing
Engaging in physical fights, particularly using weapons
Tendency to run away
Lighting fires
Criminal behaviours such as shoplifting
Tendency to use drugs, alcohol and cigarettes at an early age
Low self-esteem
Learning difficulties
Aggression to others, including bullying
Cruelty to animals
Tendency to hang out in gangs

Article originally found here:,5744,6164202%255E23289,00.html

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