Patterns and precursors of adolescent antisocial behaviour

ATP Report – December 2002

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1. Introduction

This report is the product of the collaborative partnership between the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Crime Prevention Victoria. The partnership began in 2001 when Crime Prevention Victoria commissioned the Institute to analyse and collect data from the Australian Temperament Project concerning the development of adolescent and young adult antisocial and criminal behaviour. This report provides valuable new information, which it is hoped will improve our understanding of the factors that place an individual at risk of engaging in this type of behaviour and, in turn, inform early intervention efforts aimed at diverting individuals away from problematic pathways.

Adolescence is a critical period for the emergence and entrenchment of antisocial behaviours (including criminal behaviours), which for some, persist into adulthood and entail substantial costs for individuals, families and the community. It is widely recognised that early intervention and prevention can curtail the development of these problems and is preferable to reacting after the problem behaviour has become established. Greater success in universal and targeted interventions is predicated on improved understanding of the genesis of such behaviour. The Australian Temperament Project, a large scale longitudinal study, with twelve waves of data spanning the first eighteen years of life, provides a valuable opportunity to investigate the precursors of antisocial behaviour among Australian adolescents, and to examine a broad range of risk factors across developmental stages and domains of functioning.

The focus of this first report is on adolescent antisocial behaviour, which includes criminal acts such as theft or the selling of drugs, and dysfunctional behaviors1 such as running away from home or physical aggression. A brief overview of the research into adolescent antisocial behaviour is first presented, followed by a summary of the findings emerging from the current study and a discussion of their implications for the understanding of antisocial behaviour, as well as for policy development and early intervention and prevention efforts. For those interested in more a more detailed description of the findings, the appendices for this report can be obtained electronically from Crime Prevention Victoria's website,

Nature and extent of adolescent antisocial behaviour

Information regarding the frequency and nature of antisocial behaviour among young people is typically obtained from a number of sources: (1) official statistics obtained from the criminal justice agencies (that is, police and courts), or (2) self-reported behaviour, generally obtained during the course of interviews or surveys (Rutter, Giller and Hagell 1998). Both types of information have advantages and disadvantages. Official statistics provide a measure of behaviours reported to and recorded by police. However, they provide a conservative assessment, since a high proportion of those committing antisocial acts are not apprehended, and many minor antisocial behaviours may not attract or warrant attention by authorities. Furthermore, particular groups, such as those from disadvantaged families and neighbourhoods, may be more likely to be the focus of official attention and hence have a greater likelihood of being apprehended (Rutter et al. 1998). Thus, official records provide an incomplete picture of the incidence of antisocial behaviours across different sections of the community.

Self-report has the potential to provide a more comprehensive picture and can cover a wider array of antisocial acts (not just those that are illegal), but may be affected by social desirability and other biases. It relies on the willingness of individuals to reveal potentially compromising information, and on respondents' veracity and memory. It is also reliant on the representativeness of the sample used, and researchers' ability to reach and engage the young people involved in serious antisocial acts. While recognising the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches, the current report focuses on adolescents' self-reported antisocial behaviour.

Antisocial behaviour among Australian adolescents

Studies examining rates of antisocial behaviour among Australian adolescents have found that it is very common for them to engage in some level of antisocial behaviour.

For example, in 1996, 441,234 New South Wales secondary school students in Years 7 to 12 were surveyed about their involvement in antisocial activities (Baker 1998). Close to 40 per cent of all students admitted to having attacked someone with the idea of hurting them at some time in their life, 38.6 per cent reported having purposely damaged or destroyed someone else's property, and over a fifth (22.8 per cent) had received or sold stolen goods. Significant age and gender differences were found, with rates for all types of offences peaking around Years 9 and 10 (14-16 years), and males reporting higher rates of each offence type, in each year level, almost without exception.

Further evidence of the high frequency of antisocial behaviour among Australian adolescents can be found in a Victorian survey of 8,984 Year 7, 9 and 11 students (Bond, Thomas, Toumbourou, Patton and Catalano 2000). Rates of antisocial behaviour generally increased from Years 7 to 9, but were relatively stable from Year 9 to Year 11. Consistent with Baker's (1998) findings, the peak incidence for most offences was in Year 9. The most common antisocial behaviours Year 9 students reported having been involved in during the past year were: stealing from a shop (30 per cent), engaging in graffiti (23 per cent), participating in a fight or a riot (18 per cent), carrying a weapon (18 per cent), and handling stolen property (18 per cent).

While these two studies used different time frames to assess engagement in antisocial behaviour (lifetime vs within the past year), some consistent trends are evident, particularly the escalation and peaking of antisocial behaviour in the mid teens. These trends are also reflected in official statistics.

Official statistics relating to antisocial behaviour among young people in Victoria, Australia.
  • 16.5% of all persons proceeded against by Victoria Police in 2000/01 were aged between 10-16 years, compared with 38.2% who were aged 17-24 years, and 45.3% who were aged 25 years or over.
  • 10-24 year-olds comprised approximately one-third of persons proceeded against for homicide and rape, half of all persons proceeded against for assault, and almost 60% of persons proceeded against for property offences.
  • 15-19 years or 20-24 years are the peak ages of offending for homicide, assault, fraud, theft, burglary, vandalism and drug offences.
  • 4-5 times as many young males are proceeded against by Victoria Police than young females.

Source: Victoria Police, Statistical Services Branch (2002).

Comparisons with international data

Studies that have examined rates of self-reported antisocial behaviour among adolescents in other countries have found similar patterns to those identified in Australia. That is, some degree of antisocial behaviour appears to be quite common among adolescents (Baker 1998; Rutter et al. 1998), to be more frequent among males than females, and typically peaks during midto- late adolescence. Nevertheless, there is considerable variation in rates across countries (Rutter et al. 1998). However, it should be noted that methodological differences between studies (for example, the representativeness of the sample employed, the measures of antisocial behaviour used, the time period during which participants were surveyed) make it difficult to directly compare rates of self-reported behaviour in different countries.

In summary, antisocial behaviour is common in adolescence. It ranges from relatively minor to quite serious acts, typically peaks during mid-to-late adolescence, and is more common among males than females. It has potentially serious consequences for adolescents both in the present and the future (Moffitt, Caspi, Harrington and Milne 2002), and impacts on their families and wider society (Homel et al. 1999).

Patterns of antisocial behaviour

In addition to investigating the nature and extent of antisocial behaviour in the community, considerable research has focused on differentiating between young people who exhibit distinct patterns of antisocial behaviour. Two such patterns, violent versus non-violent antisocial behaviour, and persistent versus experimental antisocial behaviour, will now be discussed.

Violent versus non-violent

Considerable research supports the notion that violent offenders are a small but distinct group from those who engage in nonviolent antisocial or criminal behaviour (Farrington and Loeber 2000; Loeber, Farrington, Rumsey, Kerr, Allen-Hagan 1998; Maughan, Pickles, Rowe, Costello and Angold 2000; Nagin and Tremblay 1999).

A comprehensive literature review undertaken by the United States Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders (Loeber et al. 1998) revealed a number of key differences between violent and non-violent offenders. These included the findings that: violent offenders are typically male; the majority of violent offenders tend to start offending earlier, and continue offending longer, than non-violent offenders; violent offenders tend to exhibit multiple problem behaviours (for example, substance use, mental health difficulties, authority conflict problems, aggression etc); and violent offenders tend to commit a range of aggressive and non-aggressive offences.

Further support for a differentiation between violent and non-violent offenders can be found in research that has attempted to chart developmental pathways to antisocial behaviour. For example, Maughan and colleagues (2000) examined the development of aggressive and non-aggressive conduct problems in a sample of 1419 American boys and girls. These authors found only a small degree of overlap between the developmental pathways for the aggressive and non-aggressive children. Similarly, a Canadian study of 1,037 males (Nagin and Tremblay 1998) identified unique developmental pathways for those who engaged in overt delinquency (for example, physical violence) and those who engaged in covert delinquency (for example, theft) during adolescence.

Nevertheless, some have argued against this distinction. Piquero (2000), for example, claims that the difference between violent and non-violent offenders is quantitative not qualitative. Piquero (2000) notes the consistent finding that violent offenders tend to commit more offences than non-violent offenders. Based on this observation, he suggests that the difference between these groups is more a matter of degree than type, in which case the correlates of one type of offence should be the same as another. Piquero (2000) tested this hypothesis on data from a sample of 987 American adolescents. After controlling for frequency of offending he found that only one variable differentially predicted violent, but not non-violent offending, namely, variation in intelligence test scores. Individuals with low intelligence scores were more likely to come into police contact for a violent offence by age 18 than those who scored highly on this measure.

While researchers should remain open to the idea that the difference between violent and non-violent offenders may be one of degree, differentiation into these subtypes appears to be a useful strategy for investigating the developmental pathways to adolescent antisocial behaviour.

Experimental versus persistent

Another distinction frequently made in the research literature relates to the stability or transient nature of antisocial behaviour.

Childhood and adolescence are periods of high experimentation, during which many young people engage in behaviours that are not pro-social (for example, shoplifting, lying, bullying, annoying peers etc) (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, DeLamatre 1997). Nevertheless, while many young people act in an antisocial manner, this behaviour is usually transitory (Dussuyer and Mammalito 1998; Kelley et al. 1997; Moffitt and Harrington 1996). Individuals who engage in antisocial behaviour for a relatively short period of time and then desist, are often referred to as "experimenters". On the other hand, for a small group of people, antisocial behaviour is much more stable (Kelley et al. 1997; Moffitt and Harrington 1996), often beginning at a very early age and continuing well into adulthood. Those who maintain high levels of antisocial behaviour over long time periods are often labelled "persisters".

Consistent with the experimental – persistent distinction, Moffitt and colleagues (Moffitt and Harrington 1996; Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter and Silva 2001) propose two broad categories of antisocial behaviour: "life-course persistent" antisocial behaviour (which emerges early in life and persists well into adulthood); and "adolescent-limited" antisocial behaviour (which emerges alongside puberty and is transitory). According to these authors, adolescent-limited antisocial behaviour is quite common and may have few long-term deleterious consequences, whereas relatively few young people engage in life-course persistent antisocial behaviour.

Moffitt and colleagues (2001) tested this taxonomy in a sample of 922 males and females from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. They found that 200 participants fulfilled the criteria for adolescent-limited antisocial behaviour, whereas 53 met the criteria for life-course persistent antisocial behaviour. Life-course persistent antisocial behaviour was considerably more common among males than females, with approximately 10 males to every female displaying this pattern of antisocial behaviour, whereas the gender difference in adolescent-limited antisocial behaviour was small (1.5:1 males to females).

This distinction appears to be a critical one. However, relatively few studies have the requisite longitudinal data to allow the differentiation of such groups. The Australian Temperament Project, with data available at multiple timepoints from infancy onwards, has the capacity to investigate this important issue.

Theoretical models

Many models have been proposed to explain the development of antisocial behaviour. Some models propose different pathways leading to the development of antisocial behaviour. For example, Loeber and colleagues (Loeber, Wung, Keenan, Giroux, Stouthamer-Loeber, Van Kammen, and Maughan 1993) suggest that three different pathways can explain the development of antisocial behaviour in males. The first of these, the overt pathway, involves an escalation in aggressive acts (for example, minor aggression --> physical fighting --> physical violence) over time; the second, the covert pathway, involves an escalation in less overt antisocial acts (for example, minor covert behaviours --> property damage --> moderate to severe delinquency); while the third pathway, the authority conflict pathway, involves a sequence of stubborn behaviour, leading to defiance, and ultimately authority avoidance (for example, running away from home, truancy). Less serious behaviours precede more serious behaviours in these pathways and boys may proceed along more than one pathway at a time.

The Social Development model of Catalano and Hawkins (1996) emphasises the role of social learning in the development of antisocial behaviour. According to this model, children learn patterns of behaviour, whether they are prosocial or antisocial, from their family, their school, religious and other community institutions, and their peers. Hence, an individual's behaviour is determined by the predominant behaviours, norms and values held by those to whom the individual is attached. Consequently, youth attachment to prosocial individuals, developed particularly through involvement in rewarding experiences, is posited to be protective against the development of antisocial behaviours, conduct problems and substance use.

Weatherburn and Lind (2001) propose a role for economic stress in the development of criminal behaviour. According to their model, parents who experience higher levels of economic stress are more likely to neglect or abuse their children or engage in harsh, erratic and inconsistent disciplinary practices than other parents. This kind of parenting behaviour may lead a child to affiliate more strongly with their peers than their parents, making the child susceptible to the negative influence of antisocial peers. The effects of economic stress are reduced when parents have a strong social support network, but increase if such a support network is absent, or other sources of stress are present (for example, crowded household, large family, "difficult child", family conflict, parental disorder). Patterson, Reid and Dishion (1992) also suggest a critical role for parenting in the development of antisocial behaviour among males. They suggest that individuals who experience poor "basic training" as children are more susceptible to poor academic performance and peer rejection later on. These problems may lead to association with antisocial peers and engagement in antisocial acts in adolescence, and eventually, to poor adjustment in adulthood.

It should be noted that many of these "pathways" models have been developed to explain antisocial behaviour among males, with relatively little attention to antisocial behaviour among females.

Another approach to understanding the development of antisocial behaviour is the Risk Factors approach. A large body of research has been dedicated to the identification of risk and protective factors associated with the development of antisocial behaviour. Risk factors can be defined as those factors that "increase(s) the likelihood that a subsequent negative outcome will occur" (Loeber, 1990: 4), whereas protective factors operate in the context of risk and "offset risk factors and promote social development, well-being and resilience" (Bond et al. 2000: 3).

Risk and protective factors associated with the development of antisocial and criminal behaviour can occur across a number of domains. These include the characteristics of the child, the family and its experience of stressful life events, the school context, and community and cultural factors (Homel et al. 1999). The risk and protective factors that have most frequently been found to be associated with the development of antisocial and criminal behaviour are summarised in Tables 2 and 3, respectively.

Research suggests that no single risk factor can explain the development of antisocial behaviour. Rather, the more risk factors an individual is exposed to, the greater the likelihood that he or she will exhibit antisocial or criminal behaviour (Bond et al. 2000; Loeber and Farrington 2000). Similarly, the greater the number of protective factors possessed by a young person, the more likely he or she is to display resilience despite the presence of risk (Howard and Johnson 2000). Hence, the risk of a child becoming antisocial appears to be dependent upon the balance of risk and protective factors in their lives (Loeber and Farrington 2000).

Table 2. Risk factors associated with antisocial behaviour
Risk Factors
Child factors Family factors School context Life events Community and cultural factors
  • prematurity
  • low birth rate
  • disability
  • prenatal brain damage
  • birth injury
  • low intelligence
  • difficult temperament
  • chronic illness
  • insecure attachment
  • poor problem solving
    beliefs about aggression
  • attributions
  • poor social skills
  • low self esteem
  • lack of empathy
  • alienation
  • hyperactivity/disruptive behaviour
  • impulsivity

Parental characteristics:

  • teenage mothers
  • single parents
  • psychiatric disorder
    especially depression.
  • substance abuse
  • criminality
  • antisocial models

Family environment:

  • family violence and disharmony
  • marital discord
  • disorganised
  • negative interaction/
    social isolation
  • large family size
  • father absence
  • long term parental

Parenting style:

  • poor supervision and monitoring of child
  • discipline style (harsh or inconsistent)
  • rejection of child
  • abuse
    lack of warmth and affection
  • low involvement in child’s activities
  • school failure
  • normative beliefs
    about aggression
  • deviant peer group
  • bullying
  • peer rejection
  • poor attachment to school
  • inadequate behaviour management
  • divorce and family break up
  • war or natural disasters
  • death of a family
  • socioeconomic disadvantage
  • population density and housing conditions
  • urban area
  • neighbourhood
    violence and crime
  • cultural norms concerning violence as acceptable response to frustration
  • media portrayal of violence
  • lack of support services
  • social or cultural discrimination

Source: Homel, Cashmore, Gilmore, Goodnow, Hayes, Lawrence, Leech, O'Connor, Vinson, Najman, & Western, 1999, p136. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department.

This approach emphasises the accumulation of risks as critical and treats the various risks factors as of equivalent importance. The question of whether different types of risks, or clusters of risk factors, have differential impacts remains as yet unanswered.

These are only some of the models that have been proposed to explain the development of antisocial and criminal behaviour. The current report does not try to provide a comprehensive review of current theoretical models. Rather, here we focus on one of the most widely used theoretical approaches in this field, the Risk Factor approach.

The present study

It is notable that much of the research into adolescent antisocial behaviour has been conducted in the United States, with influential work also originating in the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and New Zealand. In addition, much of the research is based on samples suffering social and economic disadvantage, and focuses primarily on males. Hence, the applicability of such research to the Australian context, to individuals in the general population, and to females, is uncertain.

There are very few Australian studies which have examined the pathways to antisocial behaviour from the early years onwards (an exception being Bor, Najman, O'Callaghan,Williams and Anstey 2001) although valuable research investigating more proximal influences has been conducted (for example, Baker 1998; Bond et al 2000; Homel et al. 1999; Weatherburn and Lind 2001 etc). Thus, our understanding of the precursors of and pathways to antisocial behaviour among Australian adolescents is very limited at present.

The present study attempts to redress this by analysing data on a sample of males and females representative of the general community who have been followed from infancy (4-8 months of age) into young adulthood. The Australian Temperament Project data set provides a valuable opportunity to investigate a wide range of risk factors for antisocial behaviour. The findings will provide guidance for early intervention and crime prevention efforts.

Table 3. Protective factors associated with antisocial behaviour
Protective Factors
Child factors Family factors School context Life events Community and cultural factors
  • social competence
  • social skills
  • above average inteligance
  • attachment to family
  • empathy
  • problem solving
  • optimism
  • school achievement
  • easy temperament
  • internal focus of control
  • moral beliefs values
  • self related cognitions
  • good coping style
  • supportive caring parents
  • family harmony
  • more than two years between siblings
  • responsibility for chores or required helpfulness
  • secure and stable family
  • supportive relationship with other adult
  • small family size strong family norms
    and morality
  • positive school climate
  • prosocial peer group
  • responsibility and
    required helpfulness
  • sense of belonging/
  • opportunities for some success at school and recognition of achievement
  • school norms re violence
  • meeting significant person
  • moving to new area
  • opportunities at
    critical turning points
    or major life transitions
  • access to support services
  • community networking
  • attachment to the community
  • participation in church or other community group
  • community/cultural norms against violence
  • a strong cultural identity and ethnic pride

Source: Homel, Cashmore, Gilmore, Goodnow, Hayes, Lawrence, Leech, O’Connor, Vinson, Najman, & Western, 1999, p138. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department.


1 Behaviours which fit the criteria for a diagnosis of Conduct Disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994)