Early Aggression and Later Delinquency

Published date01 October 2017
Date01 October 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Early Aggression and Later
Delinquency: Considering the
Redirecting Role of Good
Carter Hay
, Ryan C. Meldrum
, Alex O. Widdowson
and Alex R. Piquero
Childhood aggression consistently predicts delinquency during adolescence, but research in this area
reveals exceptions, with some highly aggressive children becoming relatively nondelinquent ado-
lescents. This directs attention to the factors that explain why early aggression is sometimes not
followed by later delinquency. This study considers that parenting marked by attachment, consistent
monitoring, and the avoidance of harshness and hostility may be one such factor. This is considered
with data from a sample of roughly 800 U.S. families, with analyses focused on 217 youth who were
highest in aggression at 4–7 years of age. The analysis revealed substantial variation among aggressive
youth in the quality of parenting that they received from ages 9 to 12. This variation helped explain
variation in age 15 delinquency, with this relationship being mediated by adolescent levels of school
bonds, susceptibility to peer pressure, and low self-control. We discuss the implications of these
findings for theory, future research, and policy efforts to reduce delinquency among aggressive and
antisocial children.
child aggression, delinquency, parenting, turning points, life course
Most children engage in aggression of some kind (Tremblay, 2000), but those who do so the most are
at higher risk for crime and delinquency in adolescence and beyond (Olweus, 1979). Indeed,
virtually every study to examine this issue reaches this conclusion (Wright, Tibbetts, & Daigle,
2008). And yet, as Sampson and Laub (1992) have pointed out, there is an important caveat: The
significant relationships between childhood aggression and later misbehavior are ‘‘far from perfect’’
andleave‘considerableroomfortheemergenceof discontinuities’’ (p. 74). Other extensive
reviews have reached a similar conclusion (Loeber & Hay, 1997; Piquero, Carriaga, Diamond,
College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Department of Criminal Justice, Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
Program in Criminology, The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Carter Hay, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA.
Email: chay@fsu.edu
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2017, Vol. 15(4) 374-395
ªThe Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204016631805
Kazemian, & Farrington, 2012), therefore indicating that although life-course stability in antisocial
behavior is common, many aggressive children become relatively crime-free adolescents and adults
(Jennings, Rocque, Fox, & Piquero, 2015).
This raises an important question:When early aggression is not followedby later delinquency, what
factors areresponsible? What leadsan aggressive child to graduateto a more prosocial adolescence? In
this study, we consider the role that goodparenting may play. Much researchindicates the importance
of parental involvement, emotional attachment, and steady supervision (Sampson & Laub, 1993;
Wright, Caspi, Moffitt, & Silva, 1999). These variables partially explain why children refrain from
aggressive or delinquent behavior in thefirst place. Much less attention has beendevoted, however, to
whether they may trigger turning points in behavior among children who already are aggressive early
in life. Good parentingcould play such a role. Most notably, although child aggression often prompts
angry and frustrated responses that exacerbate a child’s aggressive tendencies (Burke, Pardini, &
Loeber, 2008; Caspi, Elder, & Bem, 1987), some parents do not follow that pattern—they adhere
to the principlesof good parenting even with difficult children (Belsky & Jaffee, 2006;Koenig, Barry,
& Kochanska,2010). Such efforts may not immediatelyor completely improve behavior, but they may
yield benefits over time, which encourage prosocial outcomes in adolescence.
A direct test of this possibility requires a prospective study focused specifically on aggressive
children—the key is to document their varied outcomes over time and determine how they are
affected by the quality of parenting. As we discuss, a handful of studies suggest the value of
considering this issue, but direct tests of this kind are rare. To be clear, there is substantial evidence
indicating that parent training programs can reduce delinquency (DeGarmo, Patterson, & Forgatch,
2004; Piquero, Farrington, Welsh, Tremblay, & Jennings, 2009; Webster-Stratton & Hammond,
1997), but fewer than 5%of children who are eligible for evidence-based interventions receive such
treatment (Greenwood, 2008). Thus, at issue is the question of what happens outside the context of a
programmatic intervention. Do naturally occurring parenting-triggered improvements in behavior
commonly occur among previously aggressive children?
This study seeks to provide a comprehensive examination of this question. We do so with data
from 217 children who were high in aggression at 4–7 years of age. We address two questions
regarding this group. First, how often are they exposed to high-quality parenting in late childhood (at
ages 9–12)? As noted above, prior research suggests that early aggression often prompts counter-
productive responses from frustrated parents (Caspi et al., 1987). If this is the dominant pattern, good
parenting has little chance to trigger favorable changes. We consider, however, that there will be
significant variation in exposure to good parenting in this sample of aggressive children. Our second
question considers whether the parenting quality received in late childhood explains variation in age
15 delinquency. One possibility is that it will not—these aggressive children may be somewhat
unresponsive to prosocial experiences, even those involving parents. There is, however, an alterna-
tive possibility, one noted by Karraker and Coleman (2005, p. 158): ‘‘when parents of difficult
children provide warm and stable rearing with appropriate and consistently applied discipline, the
child’s behavior is likely to become less challenging over time.’’
In considering the link between parenting and delinquency among these aggressive children, we
also are interested in the variables that mediate this relationship. We draw from relevant theories
(Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Sampson & Laub, 1993; Thornberry, 1987) to consider that good
parenting may reduce delinquency among previously aggressive children by increasing school
bonds and reducing problems in the areas of peer pressure and low self-control. This is consistent
with the idea that parent–child interaction is consequential in part because of how it affects indi-
vidual qualities like self-control, but also engagement with groups and institutions outside the family
context (including the peer and school context).
We consider these issues in an empirical test that builds in important ways on the limited number
of prior studies. Most notably, we use prospective data collected from ages 4 to 15 for a large sample
Hay et al. 375

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT