Child Effects

The importance of personal characteristics in the etiology of behavior problems cannot be ignored. Certain biological characteristics such as difficult temperament, hyperactivity or attention problems, pubertal timing (Cota-Robles, Neiss, & Rowe, 2002; Steinberg & Morris, 2001), low resting heart rate (e.g., Farrington, 1997), high levels of dopamine, lower monoamine oxidase A (Lesch, 2003), intellectual deficits, deficits in verbal abilities (Giancola, 2000a; Moffitt, 1997b), executive deficits (Giancola, 2000b; Moffitt, 1997b), minor physical anomalies (Kandel, Brennan, Mednick, & Michelson, 1989), low serotonin levels (Coccaro, Kavoussi, & McNamee, 2000; Farrington, 1997; Virkkunen & Linnoila, 1993), low cortisol levels (Tibbetts, 2009), hyperactivity and impulsivity (e.g., Farrington, 1997), low intelligence (e.g., Farrington, 1997) and neonatal experiences thought to engender biological risks such delivery complications (Raine, 2005) and prenatal exposure to maternal smoking (Brennan, Grekin, & Mednick, 1999), have been empirically associated with conduct problems, delinquency and violence. .

Though we opted to omit a chapter on biology here, mainly because the scope of the literature was so large that a full review could easily comprise its own book, we introduce the child effects construct because it competes with certain environmental factors, such as parental warmth and abuse, as an explanation for empirical correlations. In later chapters, we refer to “child effects” which stem from the child’s own biological predispositions or personality. These predispositions may influence antisocial behavior directly or indirectly. Most developmental theorists have moved away from emphasizing the independent effects of environmental factors on child behavior and have come to embrace systemic, reciprocal models where individuals exert a very significant impact on their environments and their environments influence their behavior in return. Thus we introduce the construct in future chapters to warn the reader about potential confounding effects. In some cases, concerns are raised that correlations between the child’s own predisposition for antisocial behavior and adverse outcomes may create a confounded estimate of the influence of parenting practices on child outcomes.

Temperamental characteristics such as activity level, shyness, inhibition, and difficult temperament are thought to be inborn traits (Field, 2007). Difficult temperament is associated with poor parenting, suggesting that parents respond to the child’s personality. Early manifestations of aggression, in the form of signs of frustration and rage, occur very early in life and may have a potent impact on how parents treat an infant or child. A correlation between negative parenting and child behavior that is really due to the child’s behavior is referred to in the behavior genetic literature as an evocative gene by environment correlation (rGE). There are obvious implications for potential reciprocal relations, where children are not merely the objects of environmental influence but exert a significant impact on the environment that is, in turn, shaping their lives. In this case, the child’s predisposition is not a source of spuriousness, but, instead, exerts indirect and real effects; the child’s predisposition influences parenting practices, which, in turn, have a causal impact on aggressive behavior.

Many authors have concluded that biology and the environment act in tandem (e.g., Henry, Caspi, Moffitt, & Silva, 1996; Lytton, 1990). Some studies report that child characteristics affect parenting. Huh, Tristan, Wade, and Stice (2006), for example, found that problem behavior had a greater effect on parenting (parental support and control) than parenting had on girls’ problem behavior. Pardini, Fite, and Burke (2008) found that the conduct problems influenced changes in parenting as much as parenting influenced changes in conduct problems. Findings from McCord’s studies suggest, however, that child effects on parenting are not significant (e.g., McCord, 1996). It is likely that different dimensions of child behavior have varied effects across dimensions of parenting. The pattern of effects seen in some studies suggest that parent negativity is influenced by child behavior, but parental control strategies and disciplinary practices are due mainly to parent attributes such as education and attitudes (Deater-Deckard, Fulker, & Plomin, 1999). More research would be useful in this area.

We speculate that “child factors” associated with antisocial behavior, and their likely antecedents, include difficult temperament, intellectual impairments (especially verbal or executive deficits), hyperactivity or impulsivity, and poor social skills, though no consensus on a list has been achieved as of this writing. Children with impairments in these areas face a different world from average children. First, they may have more difficulty bonding with others, beginning in infancy. They may give and receive less warmth. They may have difficulty fulfilling the normal obligations of their culture, such as sitting still in a classroom. If they have social deficits, they may have difficulty interacting with important adult figures, such as teachers. Cognitive deficiencies are likely to lead to struggles in school. In all cases, being “different” is likely to elicit less friendly interactions from the world than average children receive. Fully understanding the impact of parenting will require some consideration of these possibilities.

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