Patterns and precursors of adolescent antisocial behaviour: Types, resiliency and environmental influences
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Diana Smart, Suzanne Vassallo
Our understanding of adolescent antisocial behaviour has been substantially increased by the publication of this Second Report of the Patterns and Precursors of Adolescent Antisocial Behaviour. From the very productive collaborative partnership between the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Crime Prevention Victoria, we have further comprehensive research investigating important questions which lie at the heart of antisocial behaviour.
Through this longitudinal community study on Victorian children who are now entering adulthood - the Australian Temperament Project (in its twenty-first year) - we are confirming that young people's antisocial behaviour can take many forms. We are also discovering that it is common, and most optimistically, that it declines with age. Within the plethora of very interesting findings, there are clear messages for policy and program developers as well as for practitioners and for those who deliver services to children, young people and families.
The Second Report represents another landmark in the formation of a very strong Victorian evidence base to support the government's approach to crime prevention through early intervention strategies. As the research has convincingly shown, these interventions may be most effective at particular periods in the lives of children and adolescents. The research also points to whole of government and whole of community approaches where the efforts of families, teachers, police, friends and the community can all interact and be directed to protecting our children and young people from antisocial behaviour, which is so costly and can be so destructive.
The origins of many problems, including antisocial behaviour in adolescence and adulthood, can be traced back to early childhood. The Second Report makes a further substantial contribution to our understanding of how and why antisocial behaviours develop in childhood and adolescence, and identifies opportunities for assisting vulnerable youngsters to move on to more positive pathways. In doing so, it adds to the evidence base for policy and practice regarding Australian children and their families.
Above all the Second Report carries a message of hope – that antisocial behaviour can be a passing phase which is outgrown. It is also encouraging that there are a substantial number of 'at risk' children who do not become persistently antisocial. Yet this also warns us to be cautious, and to avoid labelling children who appear to be 'at risk'. Sensitive interventions are required which recognise the reality of the multiple pathways to and from antisocial behaviour.
I strongly commend the Second Report of Patterns and Precursors of Adolescent Antisocial Behaviour and am confident it will be of great interest and a source of evidence to the research community, to policy makers, and to parents, teachers and professionals who work with children and families. In particular, it is hoped that the report, in addressing current policy concerns, will continue to facilitate government and community efforts to ensure the very best outcomes for all our children and their families.
Minister for Police & Emergency Services
This report on the patterns and pathways to antisocial and criminal behaviours among Australian adolescents is the second in a series of publications arising from a very productive collaboration between the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Crime Prevention Victoria.
The collaboration involves analysis of data from the Australian Temperament Project, a longitudinal study of a representative community sample of over 2400 children and families living in urban and rural areas of Victoria. The Australian Temperament Project is now in its twenty-first year and has been led by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Royal Children's Hospital, the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and elsewhere. Since 2000, the Project has been housed at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The study contains a very rich data set on many aspects of the children's lives and their family and school experiences, collected over 13 survey waves. The longitudinal nature of the study allows the identification of a number of outcomes in adolescence and young adulthood. The collaboration between the Institute and Crime Prevention Victoria began in 2001 and in broad terms seeks to exploit this unique data set to increase understanding of the aetiology of adolescent antisocial behaviour, with a view to providing evidence for prevention and early intervention efforts.
The First Report, published in 2002, presented findings on across-time trends in adolescent antisocial behaviour, and the precursors of persistent and experimental patterns of such behaviour. The Second Report extends those findings substantially, highlighting the diversity and complexity of paths to adolescent antisocial behaviour.
In particular, the Report delineates the important distinction between violent and non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour, the paths away from risk to resiliency for a substantial portion of the sample, the influence of the broader social environment, and the declining trend in rates of antisocial behaviour as the participants reach adulthood.
The findings emphasise the importance of avoiding 'one size fits all' proscriptions, at the same time as pointing towards the most opportune ages for intervention and identifying some of the critical factors which need to be considered.
I am confident that the new insights provided by this Second Report will be of great interest to policy makers and the research community, as well as to parents, teachers and other professionals who work with children and families. I hope its findings will be utilised in policy and practice to promote children's healthy development and wellbeing.
Australian Institute of Family Studies
This is the Second Report from the collaborative partnership between the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Crime Prevention Victoria examining the development of antisocial behaviour within a representative sample of Victorian adolescents. The research draws upon data collected as part of the Australian Temperament Project.
This longitudinal community study has followed the development and wellbeing of a group of Victorian children from infancy to young adulthood. The initial sample comprised 2443 infants (aged 4-8 months) and their parents, who were representative of the Victorian population. Thirteen waves of data have been collected, via annual or biennial mail surveys. Parents, teachers and the young people themselves have completed questionnaires at various stages during the project.
The Second Report focuses on four specific issues related to adolescent antisocial behaviour:
- Are the precursors and pathways for violent and non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour similar or different?
- What factors or characteristics prevent 'at-risk' children from engaging in later adolescent antisocial behaviour?
- Do the characteristics of local areas influence engagement in adolescent antisocial behaviour, and if so, how?
- How common is antisocial behaviour at 19-20 years of age and does the nature and frequency of antisocial acts change over the adolescent years?
Precursors of violent and non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour
The broad question explored was: to what extent are the pathways and precursors similar for violent and non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour, and do the risks for each type of behaviour emerge at similar or different ages?
Three groups of 17-18 year old antisocial adolescents were identified:
- i. a primarily violent group ('Violent-Only', n = 40, 65 per cent male),
- ii. a primarily non-violent group ('Non-Violent-Only', n = 80, 54 per cent male),
- iii. a group who engaged in high levels of both types of antisocial behaviour ('Dual-Problem', n = 34, 85 per cent male).
These groups were compared to a 'Comparison' non-antisocial group (n = 1048, 42 per cent male) to: a) identify the age (or stage of development) at which each group began to differ from a 'normal' developmental pathway, and b) to explore the pattern of risks displayed by each group. The Non-Violent-Only antisocial group was also compared to the two violent antisocial groups (Violent-Only, Dual Problem) to further understand how similar or different the risks were for violent and non-violent antisocial behaviour. The most notable findings are:
- Several developmental pathways were found
The three antisocial groups began to diverge from the 'normal' developmental pathway of the Comparison group at different ages. The Dual Problem antisocial group was first noticeably different in early childhood, the Non-Violent-Only antisocial group was consistently different from mid- to late- childhood, and the Violent-Only antisocial group in adolescence. These findings have implications for crime prevention strategies, particularly in deciding upon the optimal times for early intervention and prevention efforts directed at differing types of antisocial behaviour.
- There were specific precursors for violent and non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour
All three antisocial groups were more problematic than the Comparison group on a range of characteristics, although as noted previously, difficulties tended to emerge at different ages in each group. Precursors common to all three antisocial groups were aggression, difficulties in persevering with tasks and activities, school adjustment difficulties, and lower social skills. Strategies aimed at improving these types of skills and attributes have the potential to benefit the majority of young people who engage in antisocial behaviour, regardless of whether they are prone to violent or non-violent behaviour. There were also some aspects on which the two violent antisocial groups, but not the Non-Violent-Only antisocial group, were problematic. Both violent groups (Violent-Only, Dual Problem) were more attracted to sensation seeking, were more 'reactive' (were more volatile and had difficulties controlling emotions), and experienced more difficulties in interpersonal relationships than the Non-Violent-Only group. Furthermore, some precursors were specific to the Dual Problem group only, such as a less advantaged family environment, parental perception of the child as 'difficult', and early language delay in one-infive individuals.
- Violent adolescents were a diverse group
Adolescents involved only in violent antisocial behaviour were rather different from those who engaged in both violent and non-violent antisocial behaviour. Problems among the Dual Problem group were evident from early in life while problems among the Violent-Only group tended to emerge in adolescence. Many risks were common to both groups, such as aggression, a volatile temperament style, low perseverance, less optimal parenting, and friendships with antisocial youth. However, some specific risks were also found, such as delayed language development, hyperactivity, parent-child relationship difficulties and a less advantaged family environment among the Dual Problem group; and anxiety and poor peer relationships among the Violent-Only group.
- The Dual Problem group was much more problematic than the Violent-Only and Non-Violent antisocial groups
The Dual Problem group was much more problematic than the two single problem antisocial groups, with higher rates of difficulties on a wider range of characteristics and from earlier in life. These findings highlight the importance of providing intervention and assistance for susceptible young people and their families, such as those in the Dual Problem group, before problems become entrenched. The most appropriate time for this group appears to be in the pre-school years, as these children tended to display numerous and enduring difficulties from the primary school years onwards.
Resilience from adolescent antisocial behaviour: The role of personal attributes and the family, peer and school environment
While there has been much research into risk factors for, and precursors of, adolescent antisocial behaviour, much less is known about the factors and processes that protect vulnerable young people from engaging in such behaviour. To determine the role of individual, family, school and peer factors in promoting resilience, two groups of children who were 'at-risk' at 11-12 years were compared. Individuals were classed as being 'atrisk' if they possessed three or more individual characteristics identified by the current study and other research as risk factors for persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour, such as aggression, lower social skills, or a difficult temperament style.
The groups were:
- i. an 'at-risk' group who engaged in little or no subsequent antisocial behaviour (Resilient group, consisting of a random sample of 100 of the 286 children identified as 'high risk' who were not subsequently antisocial, 60 per cent male),
- ii. an 'at-risk' group who were persistently antisocial during adolescence i.e. engaged in high levels of antisocial behaviour at two or more timepoints (Antisocial group, n = 78, 72 per cent male).
Both groups were compared to a third, low risk group who comprised the remainder of the sample, to provide a normative comparison (Comparison group, n = 1108, 48 per cent male).
The aim was to a) describe the developmental pathways of these three groups, b) to identify changes in pathways, and c) to determine whether there were personal and/or environmental characteristics that consistently differentiated the Resilient from the Antisocial group, which may have provided protection from a progression to persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour. The key findings arising from the research are:
- Developmental pathways can change over late childhood and early adolescence, so intervention may still be successful at this age
The 'at-risk' Resilient and Antisocial groups were similar to each other, and more problematic than the Comparison group, on a wide range of characteristics during toddlerhood and childhood. However, there was a marked change in the Resilient group over the early adolescent years that continued throughout adolescence. This improvement was so large that by the age of 17-18 years, the Resilient group resembled the Comparison group on many attributes and characteristics. This finding has important implications for intervention strategies aimed at preventing adolescent antisocial behaviour as it suggests that individuals who may be 'at risk' for adolescent antisocial behaviour are still amenable to change during late childhood and early adolescence.
- The early adolescent years appear to be a crucial transition point in pathways to adolescent antisocial behaviour
Between the ages of 12-13 and 13-14 years, clear differences between the 'at-risk' Resilient and Antisocial groups began to emerge. While our study cannot fully explain this trend, it is possible that factors associated with the transition from primary to secondary school, and/or developmental changes associated with the onset on puberty and the progression to adolescence, may have played a substantial role.
- Changes in temperament and their impact
Temperamental characteristics are sometimes viewed as permanent, and not easily changed. While the two 'at-risk' groups were consistently rated as more volatile and less able to maintain attention on tasks than the Comparison group during childhood, there was a marked improvement among the Resilient group on these characteristics over adolescence. The Resilient group had also developed better management and control of their emotions by late adolescence. These findings suggest that individuals who display 'difficult' temperamental characteristics during childhood can develop and mature, and can be supported in managing or moderating these traits, so that they do not become 'problem' adolescents.
- The potent role of peer relationships in preventing the development of persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour
Peer relationships were found to play a very important role. Prior to adolescence, the only characteristic that differentiated the 'at-risk' Antisocial group from the 'at-risk' Resilient group was their tendency to have formed friendships with peers who engaged in antisocial activities. Since this difference was evident before the group trajectories began to diverge, it is possible that the Resilient group's lower involvement with antisocial peers may have protected them from later developing persistent antisocial behaviour. Some other, less expected, peer-related characteristics were also associated with resilience against antisocial behaviour for 'at risk' adolescents, such as lower peer involvement, less positive peer relationships, and lower assertiveness. It is possible that the more reserved personal style of the Resilient group may have impeded and protected them from a progression to more serious and long-term behaviour problems.
- The importance of parenting and the family environment
Parents of 'at-risk' Resilient children consistently reported supervising their children's activities to a much higher extent than parents of 'at-risk' Antisocial children, and reported an improvement in their relationship with their child over the adolescent years. Furthermore, Resilient children were more likely to belong to an 'intact' family unit and their parents reported a more optimal family environment (a higher sense of family unity, lower levels of marital conflict and lower levels of family stress) than parents of Antisocial children.
While it is difficult to determine whether these differences (e.g. higher parental supervision, more positive parent-child relationship) contributed to the improvement in the Resilient group, or occurred as a result of it, interventions aimed at improving relationships between 'at-risk' children and their parents, and assisting parents to develop more effective parenting skills, would appear highly worthwhile.
- The powerful influence of school attachment and achievement
The 'at-risk' Resilient group experienced fewer school adjustment difficulties than the 'at-risk' Antisocial group over the secondary school years, and Resilient adolescents reported feeling more attached to school, and had more positive attitudes to schooling than those in the Antisocial group. These findings highlight the positive role that schools can play in promoting the psychosocial development of young people.
- Pathways to adolescent antisocial behaviour are diverse and complex
Importantly, most children identified as being 'at-risk' of developing persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour did not go on to become persistently antisocial. It was also noteworthy that approximately a third of individuals who engaged in persistent antisocial behaviour during adolescence had not been identified as 'at-risk' at 11-12 years.
These findings suggest that there are a number of pathways to adolescent antisocial behaviour, and that a wide range of personal and environmental factors may influence an individual's progression along particular pathways. More research is needed to further specify the mechanisms and processes which facilitate or impede the development of adolescent antisocial behaviour.
Location Effects on Adolescent Antisocial Behaviour
It has been suggested that local area or community characteristics, such as poverty and high unemployment, may directly impact on adolescent antisocial behaviour by motivating an individual to offend. An alternative view is that characteristics such as socio-economic disadvantage may impact on antisocial behaviour more indirectly; for instance, by interfering with parents' ability to appropriately discipline, supervise or nurture their children. The relationship between locality characteristics and rates of adolescent antisocial behaviour as measured by self reports was explored, as was the question of whether these characteristics exerted an impact directly or indirectly.
Location effects were measured in terms of Victorian local government area (LGA) characteristics. The location characteristics included were: unemployment rates, average weekly income, recorded crime rates, growth rates, proportion of lone-parent families, relative socio-economic disadvantage, economic resources, education and occupation, and metropolitan-regional-rural location. The frequency of Persistent, Experimental and Low/non antisocial behaviour among adolescents in disadvantaged, and nondisadvantaged, localities was investigated. The findings from this investigation are:
- No direct locality effects were found
Rates of Persistent, Experimental and Low/non antisocial behaviour were similar among adolescents living in disadvantaged areas (LGAs that were ranked among the most problematic 20 per cent in the state on a characteristic) by comparison with those living in less disadvantaged areas. A 'total disadvantage index' was developed (the sum of the number of disadvantaged characteristics), and again, self-reported rates of antisocial behaviour were not significantly higher among those from more disadvantaged localities. Rates of adolescent antisocial behaviour were similar across metropolitan, regional or rural locations. Similarly, local area characteristics were generally not related to adolescents' contact with the criminal justice system.
- No indirect locality effects were found
The local area characteristics included in the analyses (socio-economic disadvantage and high recorded crime rates) did not appear to have an indirect effect on antisocial behaviour. That is, living in a disadvantaged or high crime area did not appear to interact with characteristics of the peer and family environment (a non-intact family unit, low levels of parental supervision, or frequent association with antisocial peers) to increase the likelihood that an individual would engage in persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour.
These findings suggest that local area characteristics had little association with self-reported adolescent antisocial behaviour. However, some qualifications are necessary. Even with the relatively large sample used in the analyses (n = 970), only a small number of individuals were found to have several of the characteristics investigated (disadvantaged locality, non-intact family, low parental supervision, antisocial peer friendships). Thus a comprehensive investigation of indirect effects was not possible. Additionally, the measure of location used (LGA) may have been too broad to detect area differences. Future research into this issue would appear worthwhile.
Patterns of antisocial behaviour and substance use at 19-20 years of age
Research has shown that rates of antisocial behaviour tend to be highest in mid-adolescence and then decline with age. The question of whether antisocial behaviour declined further after the completion of secondary school and the transition to adult life was investigated. Patterns of antisocial behaviour at 19- 20 years of age were explored, and compared to the trends found at earlier ages. The key findings are:
- Levels of antisocial behaviour and substance use at 19-20 years
As part of the thirteenth data collection wave, at 19-20 years of age, participants were asked about their engagement in antisocial behaviour over the past year (or month for substance use). The most frequent type of behaviour, by far, was alcohol consumption (89 per cent had consumed alcohol within the past month), and tobacco and marijuana use (38 per cent and 22 per cent respectively). Few reported using illicit drugs such as heroin or ecstasy (approximately 1 per cent).
Common antisocial acts were: being drunk in a public place (two-thirds of young people), and avoiding payment for services (38 per cent). Violent and property acts were less common, with the most frequent types being involvement in a physical fight (16 per cent) and damaging property (13 per cent). Just over 20 per cent had been in contact with the police for driving offences during the past 12 months, but only 5 per cent had been in contact with the police for other types of offences.
Overall, engagement in antisocial behaviour was relatively common, with 46 per cent reporting having committed one or more types of antisocial acts during the past year. However, most young people were involved in a small number and range of antisocial acts. For most types of behaviour, very few engaged in the behaviour on more than one occasion. Only 15 per cent engaged in high levels of antisocial behaviour (involvement in three or more different types of antisocial behaviour).
- Comparison of antisocial behaviour and substance use among males and females aged 19-20 years
Substance use was common across both sexes. Similar proportions of males and females had consumed alcohol, smoked cigarettes and been drunk in a public place. Rates of evading paying for services were also similar among young men and women. There were also several gender differences.
For males, involvement in physical fights was relatively common (one-in-four), while one-in-five reported engaging in property damage. A relatively high proportion of males had been in contact with the police for driving offences (32 per cent), engaged in computer-related antisocial acts (8-13 per cent), the buying or selling of stolen goods (14 per cent), and shoplifting (12 per cent). Between 5 and 10 per cent reported selling illegal drugs, carrying a weapon, stealing from a house, police contact for non-driving offences, and being charged by police.
For females, a relatively high number reported police contact for driving offences (13 per cent), while rates of physical fights, shoplifting, buying or selling stolen goods, and damaging property were between 6 and 9 per cent.
- Across-time patterns of antisocial behaviour and substance use from early adolescence to adulthood
Comparison of the rates of antisocial acts at 19-20 years with rates of antisocial behaviour at earlier time points (13-14, 15-16 and 17-18 years) revealed that the frequency of most property and violent acts continued to decrease from a peak at 15-16 years. However, engagement in selling illegal drugs, shoplifting and substance use at 19-20 years remained at similar levels to that at 17-18 years of age.
The number engaging in high levels of antisocial behaviour (three or more different types of antisocial behaviour in the past year) also declined. At 19-20 years, 15 per cent had engaged in 3 or more different antisocial acts, by comparison with 20 per cent at 15-16 and 17-18 years, and 12 per cent at 13-14 years.
In summary, while almost half the young people had been involved in some antisocial behaviour at 19-20 years, the overall sample's rate of engagement in most types of antisocial acts was very low, and fewer than one in five individuals had frequently engaged in high levels of antisocial behaviour. The across-time trends revealed that rates of many types of antisocial behaviour continued to decline from a peak at mid adolescence, while substance use increased steadily until late adolescence and remained constant from that time.
The findings of this Second Report build upon those from the First Report to increase our understanding of the development of antisocial behaviour among a community sample of young Victorians. Distinct developmental pathways and risks for violent and non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour were identified. A range of personal and environmental factors were shown to influence an individual's progression along particular pathways, and to divert 'at risk' children from a problematic pathway. Effects of local area characteristics on involvement in adolescent antisocial behaviour were not found, but the study's ability to investigate this issue was somewhat limited. In terms of trends across time, rates of most types of antisocial behaviour continued to decline as the young men and women entered adulthood, although some remained relatively high. Overall, the findings of the First and Second Reports provide valuable insights into the development and continuation of adolescent antisocial behaviour, and provide significant Victorian evidence for early intervention and prevention strategies.
This is the Second Report in the series Patterns and Precursors of Adolescent Antisocial Behaviour, examining the development of antisocial behaviour within a representative community sample of Victorian adolescents. It is the product of the collaborative partnership between the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Crime Prevention Victoria, which began in 2001 when Crime Prevention Victoria commissioned the Institute to collect and analyse data as part of the Australian Temperament Project concerning the development of adolescent and young adult antisocial behaviour. The findings emerging from the project provide a knowledge base which can inform and guide early intervention and prevention strategies.
The Australian Temperament Project (ATP) is a large scale, longitudinal study which has followed the development and adjustment of a cohort of Victorian children from infancy to young adulthood, with the aim of tracing the pathways to psychosocial adjustment and maladjustment across the children's lifespan (Prior, Sanson, Smart, & Oberklaid, 2000). The initial sample comprised 2443 infants (aged 4-8 months) and their parents, who were representative of the Victorian population. In total, thirteen waves of data have been collected, via annual or biennial mail surveys. Parents, teachers and the young people themselves have acted as informants at various stages during the project.
The First Report from this collaborative project, Patterns and precursors of adolescent antisocial behaviour (Vassallo, Smart, Sanson, Dussuyer, McKendry, Toumbourou, Prior & Oberklaid, 2002), examined the nature and extent of antisocial behaviour among participating adolescents; identified different patterns of antisocial behaviour; and identified precursors of this type of behaviour. In brief, the First Report found that antisocial behaviour was quite common between the ages of 13 and 18 years. For example, at 13-14 years, one in three adolescents had been involved in a physical fight in the past year, and at 17-18 years, over 40 per cent reported having skipped school at least once. Substance use (especially cigarette and alcohol use) was also relatively common, especially during mid to late adolescence. Additionally, a number of distinct patterns of antisocial behaviour were identified. These included a Low/non antisocial pattern (little or no antisocial behaviour between the ages of 13 and 18 years), an Experimental pattern (high levels of antisocial behaviour during early- to mid-adolescence only), and a Persistent pattern (high levels of antisocial behaviour throughout adolescence).
A wide range of precursors of persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour were found. Significant differences between the Persistent antisocial group and the Low/non antisocial group were evident from the early primary school years on, and increased in strength and diversity over time. The most powerful group differences emerged in intra-individual characteristics such as temperament, behaviour problems, social skills, levels of risk-taking behaviour and coping skills, and in the domains of school adjustment and peer relationships. Significant group differences in aspects of the family environment were also found. Risk factors for Experimental adolescent antisocial behaviour were identifiable from the early secondary school years onwards, and were similar, but generally less powerful, than those identified for Persistent antisocial behaviour.
Following on from the First Report, this Second Report focuses on four specific issues related to adolescent antisocial behaviour, which will further increase understanding of the pathways and precursors of such behaviour, and will provide Victorian evidence which can inform early intervention and prevention approaches.
The research questions investigated are:
- Are the risks and pathways for violent and non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour similar or different?
- What factors or characteristics protect 'at-risk' children from engaging in later antisocial behaviour?
- Do the characteristics of local areas influence engagement in antisocial behaviour, and if so, how?
- How common is antisocial behaviour at 19-20 years of age and have the nature and frequency of antisocial acts changed over the adolescent years?
The next three sections draw upon information collected within the first twelve data collection waves of the study (when participants were aged between 4-8 months and 17-18 years), whilst the fourth section uses data from the most recent data collection wave in the year 2002 (at the age of 19-20 years).
In conclusion, the findings of this Second Report build upon those of the First Report and continue to significantly increase our understanding of the development of adolescent antisocial behaviour among a community sample of young Victorians.
The First Report described pathways to persistent and experimental adolescent antisocial behaviour. It found that young people who engaged in persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour first began to exhibit more difficulties than those who engaged in little or no adolescent antisocial behaviour during the early primary school years, while youth who engaged in experimental, transitory adolescent antisocial behaviour first displayed more problematic characteristics than non-antisocial youth in the early secondary school years.
This Second Report focused on four broad issues. These were: a) pathways to and precursors of violent and non-violent antisocial behaviour in late adolescence; b) resilience from the development of persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour; c) the relationship between local area characteristics and engagement in adolescent antisocial behaviour; and d) antisocial behaviour and substance use at 19-20 years, and across-time patterns from adolescence to early adulthood.
Distinctive pathways to violent and non-violent antisocial behaviour in late adolescence were identified. The small group of individuals who engaged in both violent and non-violent antisocial behaviour appeared more problematic than those who engaged in little or no antisocial behaviour from early childhood onwards, while those who engaged in predominantly nonviolent antisocial behaviour began to exhibit difficulties in mid to late childhood. Those who engaged in primarily violent behaviour became more problematic than non-antisocial youth in early adolescence. This report has also shown that changes in pathways can occur even at a relatively late stage, as demonstrated by the large resilient group, who exhibited multiple risks for persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour during childhood, but did not in fact go on to engage in this type of behaviour in adolescence.
Taken together, these findings suggest that there are several developmental pathways to adolescent antisocial behaviour, and a number of key transition points in which changes in developmental pathways may occur. These may provide significant opportunities for intervention. The most notable transition points appear to occur at 5-6 and 12-13 years. Interestingly, both these transition points tend to coincide with changes in educational settings (i.e. from preschool to primary school, and from primary school to secondary school, respectively). These findings suggest that crime prevention strategies could best focus on assisting young people to successfully negotiate these two transition points, as these ages/stages of development appear to represent key periods in the development of adolescent antisocial behaviour.
In the First Report, it was proposed that early interventions aimed at diverting children from pathways to persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour were most appropriate during mid-childhood (age 5-6). While this appears true for the majority of young people, the findings of this Second Report suggest that intervention may be appropriate at somewhat different ages or stages of development for particular types of antisocial behaviour. For example, interventions during early childhood and prior to the commencement of primary school would appear particularly beneficial for the very small sub-group of children who exhibit a propensity for both violent and non-violent antisocial behaviour in late adolescence, while interventions with children who later engage in predominantly either violent or non-violent adolescent antisocial behaviour, but not both, would seem to have more value at later ages.
The findings of the Second Report suggest that interventions implemented after mid-childhood (ages 5-6) may still be successful in preventing the development of persistent adolescent antisocial behaviour. For example, two groups of children identified as being ‘at-risk’ at 11-12 years of age, who differed in their subsequent levels of antisocial behaviour were compared; one group which became persistently antisocial and the other larger group which engaged in little or no adolescent antisocial behaviour. These analyses revealed that these two ‘at-risk’ groups were very similar until early adolescence, at which point, their trajectories began to diverge. This finding provides hope that vulnerable children may still be amenable to change in late childhood and early adolescence.
In addition, this Report also highlights the broad range of personal and environmental characteristics that may encourage or inhibit the development of adolescent antisocial behaviour. For example, individuals who engaged in predominantly violent, predominantly non-violent or both types of antisocial behaviour all tended to exhibit higher levels of ‘acting-out’ behaviour problems, less developed social skills and more school adjustment and achievement difficulties than participants who engaged in little or no adolescent antisocial behaviour. Furthermore, ‘at-risk’ children who became persistently antisocial in adolescence were consistently more likely to associate with antisocial peers, received lower levels of parental supervision, were more attracted to thrill-seeking and adventurous activities, and tended to be more gregarious in nature than ‘at-risk’ children who engaged in little or no adolescent antisocial behaviour. These findings suggest that the aetiology of adolescent antisocial behaviour is complex, with many individual attributes and environmental characteristics interacting and impacting on the development of this type of behaviour. Hence, rather than adopting a narrow focus, crime prevention strategies should aim to target multiple aspects of children's and adolescents' lives.
The findings clearly point to certain personal and environmental characteristics that appear particularly important in the development of antisocial behaviour. Most notably, the findings of both Reports suggest that association with antisocial peers is a powerful risk factor for engaging in antisocial behaviour, while the absence of antisocial peer friendships is a strong protective factor against it. Other factors that appear to be particularly important to the development of adolescent antisocial behaviour include individual attributes such temperament style, social skills and behaviour problems; family-related variables (particularly parenting style and the quality of parent-child relationships); and levels of school bonding and achievement. Interestingly, the characteristics of the area in which an individual lives (i.e. income levels, unemployment rates, proportion of lone-parent families) did not appear to impact on self reported engagement in adolescent antisocial behaviour in this sample. However, it is likely that methodological issues (i.e. a broad measure of location & the study's sample size) limited our investigation of location effects on antisocial behaviour, and further research into this issue would appear valuable.
Finally, this report provides some insight into the changing nature and incidence of antisocial behaviour and substance use over adolescence and early adulthood. In the First Report, it was noted that antisocial behaviour was very common over the adolescent years (between the ages of 13 and 18 years). Analyses of data collected when the young people were 19 to 20 years suggest that some types of antisocial behaviour and substance use are still widespread in young adulthood. For example, high proportions reported using alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, and authority conflict acts such as being drunk in a public place and evading paying for services were also very common. However, the frequency of most property and violent antisocial acts had decreased from earlier time points. These findings suggest that there are age-related fluctuations in rates of selfreported antisocial behaviour, substance use and in the nature of offences, which need to be taken into account by crime prevention strategies.
Overall, the findings of these first two Reports provide valuable insights into the development of adolescent antisocial behaviour among participants of a large community-based longitudinal study. Nevertheless, there are still many gaps in our understanding of the development of this type of behaviour. For example, what factors contribute to the maintenance, desistance or initiation of antisocial behaviour in young adulthood? Are the precursors of specific types of antisocial behaviour (e.g. substance use) different from those for antisocial behaviour as a whole? These are among the questions to be examined in the Third Report, utilising data from the most recent data collection wave (in 2002), when participants were aged 19-20 years.
7. Next phase of the research
These First and Second Reports of the patterns and precursors of adolescent antisocial behaviour have provided a detailed account of the nature, prevalence, and development of antisocial behaviour among participants of the Australian Temperament Project. Further important issues remain to be explored concerning the development of antisocial behaviour among this sample of young Victorians. The collection of self-report data from participants aged 19-20 years will provide an opportunity for the project team to investigate some of these issues and further extend understanding of the development of antisocial behaviour in this sample.
Issues to be investigated in the Third Report include:
- Pathways to persistent antisocial behaviour among low-risk children
- The link between specific dimensions of adolescent delinquency (e.g. substance use) and other types of antisocial behaviour
- Similarities and differences between the characteristics of offenders and victims
- The relationship between self-reported antisocial acts and official police crime records
- Compliance with law – the impact of civic mindedness and perceptions of fairness of the justice syste, and
- The initiation, persistence and desistance of antisocial behaviour in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
By investigating these issues we hope to provide greater insight into the development of antisocial behaviour among young people, and to inform early intervention and prevention strategies being developed in Victoria.
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Appendices to the report are available on request - please contact us if you require any of the appendices listed below.
- Appendix 1: Significant univariate and multivariate differences between the no/low group and the three antisocial groups
- Appendix 2: Significant univariate and multivariate differences between the non-violent only group and the two violent groups
- Appendix 3: Significant univariate and multivariate differences between the comparison group & The two 'at-risk' groups
- Appendix 4: Significant univariate and multivariate differences between the antisocial & resilient groups
- Appendix 5: Measures used to assess location characteristics
The authors of the report would like to express their appreciation for the continuing support and guidance given by the Project Advisory Group established for this project. We gratefully acknowledge the valuable contribution of the members of this group, who are as follows:
- Mr Michael Brown, Director, Community and Network Support, Australian Department of Family and Community Services
- Dr Patricia Brown, Director, Children's Court Clinic
- Mr Nigel D'Souza, Manager, Community Initiatives, Community Support Fund, Victorian Department for Victorian Communities
- Ms Mary Gledhill, Policy and Program Advisor, Family and Community Support Branch, Victorian Department of Human Services
- Inspector Bill Mathers, Manager, Youth Advisory Unit, Victoria Police
- Ms Julie Millar, Senior Policy Officer, Student Welfare and Drug Education, Student Wellbeing Branch, Victorian Department of Education and Training
- Mr John Prent, Manager, Research and Web Services, Community Care Division, Victorian Department of Human Services
- Ms Uma Rao, Manager, Statistical Services Branch, Victoria Police
- Mr Stuart Ross, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne
- Dr Sheldon Rothman, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Council for Educational Research
- Associate Professor John W. Toumbourou, Centre for Adolescent Health, Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne, and Murdoch Childrens Institute
- Mr Peter Yewers, Manager, Student Welfare and Drug Education, Student Wellbeing Branch, Department of Education and Training
We would also like to sincerely thank the parents, young people and teachers who have participated in the Australian Temperament Project.