If, on the one hand, it is possible that young people are now, more than ever, displaying antisocial behaviors as never before, it is also possible this perception is just a biased one shared by many because of an increasing social awareness and a wider public attention to these kinds of behaviors. Regardless, it is paramount to further investigate this topic. Can antisocial behavior in adolescence be considered normative (Moffitt, 2006), given the developmental tasks that typically characterize adolescence (Steinberg, 2009)? Is there a tendency towards deviancy and increased severity in adolescents’ behaviors and, therefore, towards higher rates of delinquent behavior?
Firstly, we should clarify what the concept of antisocial behavior entails. It involves not just criminal acts, but also socially deviant behaviors that go against socially established rules including impulsivity, conflicts with authority, opposition and aggression (Morizot & Kazemian, 2015).
It is a comprehensive concept that includes a broad range of behaviors with very distinct levels of severity and consequences for both victims and perpetrators. As such, delinquent (in adolescence) and criminal (in adulthood) behavior can be conceptualized as parts of a more profound antisocial behavior syndrome that tends to be more persistent and stable (Farrington, 2007) involving such a degree of destructiveness that it may be punished following a conviction.
Many researchers have focused on the specificities of antisocial behavior that is limited to adolescence, with less serious social and individual consequences compared to antisocial behavior that starts to manifest early in childhood and persists through adulthood (Moffitt, 2006; Patterson & Yoerger, 2002).
Indeed, research has consistently found a marked peak in the prevalence of antisocial behaviors in adolescence compared to what is observed in other developmental stages (Blonigen, 2010; Moffitt, 1993; Morizot & Kazemian, 2015).
Overall, research suggests that there is a relationship between age-of-onset and severity/persistency. Early onset antisocial behaviors tend to be more serious and persistent as there is a consistent pattern that starts early in development and is then quite difficult to stop (Lacourse et al., 2002). With antisocial behavior that starts later on in development, individuals may have already had opportunities to develop adaptive resources that work as protective factors against prolonged antisocial trajectories (Farrington, 2007).
Following several published papers on the topic from a research project developed in Portugal, a reflection is offered on its main conclusions and their meaning to this discussion. This research aimed to understand if there is a generalized antisocial tendency that applies to all adolescent deviancy or if there are distinct aspects that make delinquency and social transgression in adolescence separate phenomena that require distinct levels of analysis.
Two different samples were studied, one from boys (39.5%) and girls (60.5%) aged 9-17 from the general population (N=489), and another from convicted young delinquent boys aged 14-20 (N=121) both of whom were assessed in terms of their behaviors, personality, social skills, and family environment (Morgado & Vale Dias, 2013; 2016a; 2016b; 2017).
Though each study involved different analyses and specific discussions, a joint consideration of their conclusions offers relevant information for a better understanding of the wider picture in adolescent antisocial behaviors.
One of the first conclusions relates to similarities found between antisocial behavior in adolescents from the general population and delinquent adolescents which may support the argument that there is one single antisocial tendency that involves many different types of behaviors, severity levels and consequences.
Indeed, psychoticism has been identified as a significant predictor of antisocial behavior in both samples, as suggested by previous literature, that highlights the role personality traits related to impulsivity and egocentrism on all types of antisocial behavior (Morizot, 2015). This predictor was not correlated with age in any of the samples, indicating a relative stability of psychoticism throughout adolescence.
Social conformity was also highlighted as significantly related to antisocial behavior in both samples, suggesting that conflicts with authority (Moffitt, 1993) and low informal social controls (Sampson & Laub, 2005) may be involved in antisocial behavior, regardless of its severity and type.
It was also found to be a mediator of the role of age on antisocial behaviors in the general population (Morgado & Vale Dias, 2016b), suggesting that its normal decrease during adolescence may explain the peak in antisocial behaviors during this developmental stage. The role of social conformity shows the importance of social constructions on adolescents’ behavioral choices. It is a central topic to address to promote informal social controls and deconstruct the positive image and tempting characteristics that antisocial behavior may have among teenagers and, thus, improving motivation towards prosocial alternatives.
Adolescents’ perceptions of their family environment were predictors of antisocial behavior in both samples. Like social conformity, family environment was also a mediator of the relationship between age and antisocial behavior in the general population (Morgado & Vale Dias, 2016b), suggesting that normative changes in family dynamics in adolescence may also be behind the higher prevalence of antisocial behaviors in adolescence. Indeed, although family as a developmental context tends to be overshadowed by the peer group in adolescence, these results suggest that family has a significant impact on behavioral choices in adolescence (Pardini, Waller & Hawes, 2015).
In contrast, there were important differences found in both samples that lend support to the idea that delinquent behaviors constitute a structurally distinct reality that needs a conceptualization at a different level.
Indeed, age variations in social conformity and family environment were not confirmed in the sample of delinquent adolescents (Morgado & Vale Dias, 2017) as opposed to the general population (Morgado & Vale Dias, 2016a). Developmentally, it would be expected that, as individuals approach young adulthood, they would show higher levels of conformity to social rules and less negative perceptions of their family environment. This situation was not the case in the sample of delinquent boys, lending support to the idea that this population experiences a non-normative developmental trajectory, which in turn constitutes a risk factor for the persistence of their behavioral repertoires.
In the general population, antisocial behavior did not show significant differences according to socioeconomic status, being quite transversal to all adolescents regardless of their living conditions (Morgado & Vale Dias, 2016a).
In the sample of delinquent adolescents, however, it was striking to notice that an outstanding majority of participants came from low socioeconomic status (Morgado & Vale Dias, 2017). It is reasonable to assume that children living in low socioeconomic conditions may be exposed to several risk factors related to their contexts that increase the likelihood of antisocial involvement (Pardini et al., 2015).
Another distinct feature of the delinquent adolescents’ sample was academic failure/retentions, with most boys attending school levels well below what would be expected for their age. This factor equally points out to the relationship between low academic performance, developmental adversity and behavioral problems (Payne & Welch, 2015)
This set of studies presents evidence to support the idea that, despite common features, different severity levels of antisocial behavior in adolescence may require specialized interventions. While social transgression in adolescence tends to be motivated by normative developmental changes, delinquency involves more structural and stable factors.
Therefore, with adolescents in general, a focus on individual dimensions in group interventions is suggested. This option offers several advantages in terms of design and cost and time effectiveness, especially at primary and secondary intervention levels. Focusing on individual dispositions, socioemotional development and perceptions of family environment and of social acceptance may prove quite effective. Despite external factors that may promote or discourage certain behaviors, individual perceptions, skills and motivations to accept or refuse a given path ultimately lie within the individuals and their beliefs about themselves and the world.
Given the available evidence, more extensive and complex interventions, at an individual, social and family levels are suggested for delinquent adolescents. In cases where antisocial behavior becomes that serious, it may be more effective to focus not only on individual dispositions – that are still paramount – but also on the individuals’ living conditions, developmental contexts and educational opportunities.
This approach should be done, not only with the purpose of reinstating troublesome young people in society and providing them with opportunities to change, but should also be taken from an early prevention perspective, identifying populations at risk and tackling their risk factors psychologically, sociologicall, and politically.
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