Perhaps it is not surprising that a new study finds a child’s perception of parents’ behavior influences the development of the child’s behavior as they reach adulthood. However, when the behavior is antisocial, defined in terms of substance use, recklessness and breaking laws, arguments and conflicts with others, and lying, the societal impact becomes relevant.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, sought to determine how antisocial behavior in one generation is transmitted to the next. Their findings are published in January/February 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.
The research was funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute of Mental Health.
In the study, researchers looked at 430 adolescents and their biological parents across the children’s high school years.
Specifically, the study examined the adolescents’ level of antisocial behavior, the level of such behavior in parents, and the teens’ general perceptions of their parents’ behavior.
The study examined if the effect of parents’ antisocial behavior on the teens’ antisocial behavior could be explained by the teens’ perceptions of their parents as antisocial, as well as by disrupted parenting practices, such as poor monitoring, hostility, and harsh and inconsistent discipline.
The researchers concluded that the children learned antisocial behavior by observing and interpreting their parents’ antisocial behavior. Parents’ behavior provides children with a model for their own behavior, and children’s perception that a parent is antisocial may be a key component in choosing and validating their own behaviors, giving children permission to engage in this type of behavior.
For the teenagers in this study, the recognition of antisocial behavior in their parents played an important role in increasing their risk for similar conduct; in fact, it played more of a role than the teens’ assessment of their parents’ parenting abilities.
Furthermore, the findings were the same for the effect of both fathers’ and mothers’ antisocial behavior and parenting on the development and growth of boys’ and girls’ antisocial behavior.
A notable finding was that the strongest influence on a child’s antisocial behavior in the 12th grade was that child’s own level of behavior in 9th grade. This indicates that there is stability in antisocial behavior through adolescence, and that the processes reported in this study are well under way by the 9th grade.
“These findings suggest that focusing on how children perceive mom and dad’s behavior and the origin of these perceptions could facilitate family-centered interventions designed to reduce the risk for problem behavior,” according to Shannon J. Dogan, the study’s lead author and a research assistant at the University of California, Davis.
“Further, identifying antisocial parents would assist in early identification of at-risk families. Interventions that reduce parental antisocial behavior and improve parenting practices should also reduce levels of problem behavior among teens.”