Teen’s criminal career can start by age 5

IOWA STATE (US) — By the time a juvenile is arrested, or referred to the juvenile court system, chances are he or she has already displayed a pattern of antisocial behavior.

Red flags are easy to recognize in the days following a tragic event like a mass shooting—but it’s important to identify those early warning signs before they turn into a pattern of criminal behavior.

In some extreme cases, children as young as 5 years old are committing crimes. So when that child becomes an adult, he or she may already have a lengthy criminal record.


“With onset in criminal careers, the first sign of that problem behavior is an indicator of how severe it will be,” DeLisi says. “If you can help them, you save a ton of money and you save a lot of problems. But it’s just the issue of correctly identifying them and that raises a bunch of ethical and other issues.”

The connection between the onset and the severity is similar to other ways children start to develop, either positively or negatively, at an early age.

“If you have someone who is 3, or even 2, and is already reading it would suggest that the person is highly intelligent,” DeLisi says. “The reason is because the emergence or the onset of the behavior is usually inversely related to what they will become. The earlier something appears the more special they are or extreme.”

With criminal behavior, the onset begins with rule violations, but researchers say a juvenile’s first arrest or contact with the police is the strongest indicator of future problems.

The new study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice included 252 children living in Pennsylvania juvenile detention centers. The offenders ranged in age from 14-18 and on average had committed 15 delinquent acts in the prior year.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder got into trouble at a younger age than other juvenile offenders without ADHD—in some cases their first contact with police happened more than a year prior to other offenders. Youth with conduct disorder were also more likely to be arrested at a younger age. But researchers urge caution on how to interpret the results.

“This by no way means that every child with ADHD or conduct disorder will become delinquent or ultimately be arrested,” says Brenda Lohman, associate professor in human development and family studies. “What it does mean is that future work needs to address why some youth with ADHD or conduct disorder become delinquent and others do not.

“From a preventive standpoint, this information could then help identify support systems and intervening mechanisms for families and parents, and ultimately decrease rates of antisocial behaviors of children with ADHD or conduct disorder.”

In addition to preventive measures, researchers hope to build on this study to better understand the family dynamics that can lead to mental and behavioral issues in children.

“Extensive research indicates that economic hardship has an adverse effect on the well-being of families,” says Tricia Neppl, an assistant professor in human development and family studies.

Economic pressures increase the risk for emotional distress, which Neppl says can lead to harsh disciplinary practices. She is working on a study to determine if such hardships, when a child is between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, affect the child’s mental health when they are 6 to 13 years old.

“The results suggest that economic adversity influences parental emotional health, marital distress, and hostile parenting which predicts child mental health disorders, such as conduct disorder and ADHD, during later childhood and early adolescence,” Neppl says.

As researchers understand more about the connection with antisocial behavior, DeLisi says he expects there will be an even greater push for intervention and treatment for ADHD and conduct disorder.

“Early interventions are very successful, but they require a lot of investment on the part of people who may be the least willing or able to invest.”

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Saint Louis University contributed to the study.

Source: Iowa State University