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|FP 6015 Chapter 2 Developmental Risk Factors|
• Identify social, family, and psychological developmental risk factors that lead to delinquency and crime.
• Demonstrate how early preschool experiences can lead to a life of antisocial behavior.
• Emphasize the overriding influence of peer rejection on child and youth behavior.
• Emphasize the importance of cognitive abilities and skills on delinquency and crime.
• Introduce the major developmental theories on delinquency and crime.
In recent years, the psychological study of juvenile and adult offending has focused on developmental risk factors. The developmental perspective views the life course of all humans as following a pathway (or trajectory) that may be littered with risk factors. Each person follows a different developmental pathway, the characteristics of which can be identified at a very early age. Some children follow a pathway leading to serious delinquency and crime, while a majority of children follow a pathway that may lead to minor juvenile offending. For some children there is no offending at all. Along each developmental path, a child may be exposed to a variety of risk factors, and some children are exposed to many more than others. Some experts believe that the more risks a person is exposed to, the greater the probability that person will participate in antisocial behavior throughout her or his lifetime (Wasserman & Seracini, 2001). It is important to note that children also may be exposed to protective factors, characteristics or experiences that are more likely to shield them from serious antisocial behavior. Warm and caring parents and a high-quality educational experience are examples. Though we recognize the importance of these factors, the goal here is to pinpoint the origins and causes of delinquency and criminal behavior, thus the focus is on factors that place individuals at risk for offending.
The risk factors we are most concerned with are individual attributes and developmental social and family experiences that are believed to increase the probability that an individual will engage in persistent criminal behavior. Psychological risk factors include but are not limited to inadequate cognitive and language ability, a troublesome temperament, inadequate self-regulation skills, and poor interpersonal and social skills. Examples of social risk factors include poverty and impoverished resources, antisocial peers, peer rejection, and preschool or school experiences. Parental and family risk factors include faulty or inadequate parenting, sibling influences, and child maltreatment or abuse.
It is important that we learn about these risk factors and how they influence the developmental pathway, especially during the early stages of development. Early identification will help improve the effectiveness of prevention and intervention programs designed to eliminate or, at least, reduce delinquent and criminal behavior. As noted by Terrie Moffitt (2005), we know that certain risk factors are closely linked to delinquency and criminal behavior, but how or why they are linked is largely unknown.
Social Risk Factors
There is little doubt that poverty has a strong connection to persistent, violent offending, as measured by official, victimization, and self-report data. Accumulating research evidence strongly indicates that poverty is one of the most robust predictors of adolescent violence for both males and females (Hammond & Yung, 1994; Hill et al., 1994; Sampson & Wilson, 1993). However, we must be extremely careful both in interpreting these data and in making decisions about how to prevent future offending. Furthermore, it should be emphasized that this strong connection holds whether we are referring to victims or offenders. Children and youth living under dire economic conditions are more likely to be victims as well as offenders. Preschool children living in a low-income family characterized by poor housing and unemployment are especially at high risk to become delinquent and/or to become victimized (Dodge, 1993a; Farrington, 1991). Poverty in this context refers to a situation in which the basic resources to maintain an average standard of living within a specific geographic region are lacking. This typically includes the absence of sufficient income to meet basic necessities of life.
The exact nature of the relationship between poverty and violence is not well understood. For example, poverty is often accompanied not only by inequities in resources, but also by discrimination, racism, family disruption, unsafe living conditions, joblessness, social isolation, and limited social support systems (Evans, 2004; Hill et al., 1994; Sampson & Lauritsen, 1994). Youth living under poverty conditions are more likely to attend inadequate schools, to drop out of school, to be unemployed, to carry a firearm, to be victimized, and to be a witness to a variety of violent events. Furthermore, having low income affects people differently. For instance, the values of different ethnic and cultural groups provide a cultural context wherein poverty is perceived differently (Guerra et al., 1995). Some subgroups in society may perceive material deprivation as more acceptable if everyone else within that cultural context is in the “same boat.”
Poverty influences the family in many ways, not the least of which is the impact on parents’ behavior toward children. For instance, the stress caused by poverty in urban settings is believed to diminish parents’ capacity for supportive and consistent parenting (Hammond & Yung, 1994). This situation may lead to coercive and highly aggressive methods of child control. Coercive methods of child control are more direct, immediate, and easy to administer. They require less time and energy to administer, compared with parenting that emphasizes sensitivity, interpersonal skills, and patient understanding. It is much “easier” to slap a child than it is to explain and utilize more thoughtful parenting strategies, but the consequences of slapping can be severe. A pattern of slapping or hitting a child to punish or to maintain control promotes a negative self-concept in the child. Furthermore, parenting that utilizes aggressive and violent tactics often provides models and a violent context that can carry the cycle of violence into the next generation. Living in a disadvantaged environment accompanied by physical punishment may also lead to the belief that economic survival and social status depend greatly on being aggressive and violent to others.
Important caveats must be offered in any discussion of serious delinquency and economic status, however. First, the connection between low socioeconomic class and delinquency does not mean that poverty causes or inevitably leads to serious, chronic offending. The great majority of poor children and adults are law-abiding citizens, and children and adults from families of high economic status do engage in serious delinquency and crime. Both self-report and victimization data indicate that sexual assault, serious drug use, theft, and fraud are perpetrated by juveniles and adults across all social classes. Second, in many communities children from the lower socioeconomic class are targeted by law enforcement practices more than are children of the middle and upper classes. They are more likely to be taken into custody by police, referred to juvenile courts, and adjudicated delinquent. Thus they appear in the government statistics that serve as the official measures of crime. Additionally, children of the poor are taken into a system that may itself promote delinquent behavior or adult crime, particularly when they are institutionalized with other offenders. Children of the middle and upper classes, by contrast, are more likely to be handled informally, provided with legal assistance, or placed by their parents in private facilities for the treatment of their problem behavior (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998; Schwartz, 1989).
Peer Rejection and Association with Antisocial Peers
Developmental researchers have continually found that children’s peer relations make unique and essential contributions to each child’s social and emotional development (Bagwell, 2004; Newcomb, Bukowksi, & Pattee, 1993). During adolescence, there is an increase in susceptibility to peer influence and a decline in susceptibility to parental influence (Mounts, 2002). In addition, numerous investigators have found that peer influence is a strong predictor of adolescent substance use and delinquent behavior (Coie & Miller-Johnson, 2001; Mounts, 2002). Not surprisingly, many members of most societies believe that this connection is obvious. The folk wisdom to “avoid bad companions” has long been the traditional admonishments from parents and other concerned adults. The link between childhood peer rejection and antisocial behavior and delinquency is not so obvious, however, and requires a closer examination.
One of the strongest predictors of later involvement in antisocial behavior is early rejection by peers (Dodge, 2003; Parker & Asher, 1987). In elementary school, being liked and accepted by the peer group is a crucial developmental task, generally leading to healthy psychological and social development (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). Social rejection by peers in the elementary school grades, on the other hand, presents a very powerful risk factor for delinquency in adolescence and antisocial behavior throughout the life course (Laird et al., 2001). Research has consistently demonstrated that peer rejection by first grade peers is significantly linked to the development of antisocial behavior by the fourth grade (Cowan & Cowan, 2004; Miller-Johnson et al., 2002). Furthermore, those children who were rejected for at least two or three years by second grade had a 50 percent chance of displaying clinically significant antisocial behavior later in adolescence, in contrast with just a 9 percent chance for those children who managed to avoid early peer rejection (Dodge & Pettit, 2003).
Interestingly, the quality of parent-child and marital relationships seems to play a significant role in whether a child is rejected or not by peers early in his or her life. Research by Cowan and Cowan (2004) demonstrates that “negative qualities in marital- and parent-child relationships in both prekindergarten and kindergarten are risk factors for low social skills, aggressive behavior, and rejection in the early years of elementary school” (p. 173).
Peer-rejected children frequently interact with one another or gravitate to antisocial peers (Laird, Pettit, Dodge, & Bates, 2005). During the adolescent years, involvement with antisocial peers shows a robust and consistent relationship to delinquency, drug use, and a range of other problematic behaviors (Laird et al., 2005). Consequently we would expect that both peer rejection and involvement with antisocial peers would be characteristic of those youngsters exhibiting antisocial or delinquent behavior early in their social development.
Why are Some Children Rejected by Their Peers?
Children are often rejected by their peers for a variety of reasons, but aggressive behavior appears to be a prominent reason. Children tend to reject those peers who frequently use forms of physical and verbal aggression as their preferred way of dealing with others. These findings prompted many social scientists to conclude that aggressive children are more likely than nonaggressive children to be rejected by peers. Ongoing research indicates, however, that the relationship may not be that straightforward. First, peers also reject peers who they perceive as shy and socially withdrawn. Second, not all aggressive children are rejected by peers; some are liked, accepted, and sought as friends. In fact research finds that many popular youngsters are often dominant, arrogant, and physically and relationally aggressive (Cillessen & Mayeux, 2004; Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2004). Thus, if the children are rejected, it is not always because they are aggressive.
On the other hand, aggression combined with peer rejection does appear to lead to serious antisocial or delinquent behavior. Children who are both physically aggressive and socially rejected by their peers have a high probability of becoming serious delinquents during adolescence and violent offenders during early adulthood. Researchers Coie and Miller-Johnson (2001), for example, conclude from their extensive review of the research literature that “those aggressive children who are rejected by peers are at a significantly greater risk for chronic antisocial behavior than those who are not rejected” (p. 201).
Which Children are Prone to Peer Rejection?
An important question still remains: Why are certain aggressive children rejected in the first place? Coie (2004) points out that there are three important differences between peer-rejected boys and nonrejected boys. First, peer-rejected, aggressive boys are more impulsive and have problems sustaining attention and staying on task. Consequently they are more likely to be disruptive of ongoing activities in the classroom or during group play. Second, peer-rejected, aggressive boys are aroused to anger more readily and probably have more difficulty calming down. This emotional rage is more likely to result in physical and verbal attacks on peers, which in turn encourages peers to avoid them altogether. Third, rejected, aggressive youngsters have fewer social and interpersonal skills for making friends and maintaining positive relationships with peers. In addition they probably have acquired fewer social and interpersonal skills because they have had limited opportunities to practice these skills on nonrejected peers.
In summary, peer-rejected children often, though not invariably, are aggressive, but they also tend to be more argumentative, inattentive, and disruptive than others, and generally have poorer social skills. These behaviors are characteristic of attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to be discussed in more detail later in the chapter under psychological risks. The observation that peer-rejected boys demonstrate inattentive, impulsive, disruptive behavior suggests that ADHD may contribute to some of the peer rejection. A study by Erhardt and Hinshaw (1994) underscores this possibility.
The study involved 25 boys with ADHD and 24 other boys who participated in a summer school program, all of whom did not know one another at the beginning of the program. The boys ranged in ages from 6 to 12 years old. As early as the first day of social interactions between the two groups, the ADHD and comparison boys showed clear differences in social behaviors, with the ADHD youngsters displaying socially noxious and noncompliance-disruptive behaviors. More important, within the first day, the ADHD youngsters were overwhelming rejected by their peers. Other studies have found similar results, with ADHD symptoms and aggression showing a close link to eventual antisocial behavioral patterns (Coie, 2004; Miller-Johnson et al., 2002). Again this topic is discussed in more detail later in the chapter.
Gender Differences in Peer Rejection
It should be noted that, to date, almost all the research and theoretical work examining the effects of peer rejection, aggression, and delinquent behavior has focused on boys. Among girls little is known about the combined effects of aggression and peer rejection. In one of the few studies focusing on girls, Prinstein and La Greca (2004) found that the development of antisocial and delinquent behavior in girls, as in boys, can be predicted by early involvement in aggressive behavior with peers. There is also some evidence to suggest that relationally aggressive girls are more likely than nonaggressive girls to be peer-rejected (Crick, 1995). That is, girls usually use relationship aggression to hurt others and diminish their social status rather than relying on the physical aggression typically used by boys. Prinstein and La Greca discovered—as did Crick—that peer rejection among girls in elementary school increased aggression but also was associated with increased substance abuse and other delinquent behaviors during adolescence. On the other hand, peer acceptance reduced and even eliminated the risk of aggression and other delinquent behaviors later on. More specifically the effects of childhood aggression and antisocial behavior were mollified under conditions of high acceptance by peers.
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