Misbehavior is common among children. However, repeated and persistent defiance, displays of aggression, hostility, and destructive tendencies may be signs of childhood antisocial behavior.

Many people exhibit antisocial behavior at some point in their life. Children show positive and negative social behaviors as they develop and mature.

In some people, antisocial behaviors may persist into adulthood and lead to more serious behavioral problems if not addressed early.

In this article, we explore antisocial behavior in children and discuss its risk factors and causes. We also give examples of childhood antisocial behavior, including some of its early signs.

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Antisocial behaviors are any acts that violate social norms and harm the basic rights of others. These include actions intended to:

  • harm or injure others
  • damage property
  • defy generally accepted rules or authority figures
  • break laws

A person may direct antisocial behaviors involving hostile or aggressive actions toward family members, teachers, peers, or other adults. Or they may exhibit more subtle nonaggressive behaviors, such as noncompliance, rule-breaking, lying, stealing, or destruction of property.

Antisocial behavior may be present in children as young as 3 or 4 years old and during adolescence.

A combination of individual and environmental factors can increase the risk of antisocial behavior.

  • Personality: A 2016 study found that individual factors, including lower levels of empathy and greater impulsivity, are potential predictors of cyber-aggression or antisocial behavior online.
  • Parenting styles and practices: A 2019 study found that authoritarian parenting styles (those that are strict, lacking in warmth, and reliant on punishment) are associated with externalizing behaviors in adolescents, whereas an authoritative styles (those featuring emotional support with firm boundaries and limits) have a protective effect on adolescents’ behavior. Parenting dimensions of affection, communication, and autonomy are protective, while overprotection and hostile and intrusive control are associated with high levels of externalizing problems.
  • Genetics: A 2018 study found multiple genes associated with a risk of lower cognitive abilities, academic difficulties, truancy, lower self-control, and criminal offending.
  • Neighborhood: A 2015 study found that low-income boys surrounded by more affluent neighbors showed higher levels of antisocial behaviors than others who live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods.
  • School environment: A 2018 Chinese study found that satisfying a child’s basic psychological needs at school, such as competence and interpersonal relationship needs, affects their prosocial and antisocial behaviors.
  • Adverse childhood experiences: A 2016 study suggests that early adversities and maladjustment, such as childhood maltreatment or abuse and difficulties adjusting at achool, are associated with an increased risk of aggressive antisocial behaviors.

Boys have a higher risk of exhibiting antisocial behaviors and adopting more serious behaviors than girls. Previous studies have suggested this may be due to differences in societal expectations of gender roles in girls and boys, with boys often given more freedom to roam and therefore engage in antisocial behaviors.

A review of research from 2016 suggests antisocial behavior in girls may also be under-recognized. At the same time, another review proposes that antisocial behavior in girls is understudied, despite girls representing a growing proportion of violent offenders.

Other risk factors in the child’s family setting include:

  • use of corporal punishment and coercion
  • parental psychiatric disorders, including maternal depression
  • economical distress and poverty
  • parental history of antisocial behavior and substance misuse

The exact cause of antisocial behavior is unknown. However, experts believe individual factors (e.g., temperament and cognitive ability), psychosocial factors (e.g., friendships), and environmental factors (e.g., school and home environment) may shape it.

A twin study suggests that genetics may influence antisocial behavior by about 41%, non-shared environments by 19%, and shared environments by 40%. Shared environments are factors that people living together, such as families, share.

These include parent-rearing styles, family income, and divorce. Non-shared environments are aspects of a person’s environment that they do not share with their household, including different friends or teachers.

Many studies show that parenting plays a role in the development of aggressive and callous-unemotional (CU) traits in children. A 2018 study proposed a link between parental harshness and CU traits in children. This, in turn, increases the risk of childhood aggression and conduct disorder.

A child’s social interactions with family, friends, and community may also shape their behavior. A 2019 study notes that antisocial friendships are a risk factor for antisocial behavior in adolescence. It also suggests that an authoritarian parenting style may be a risk factor for impulsivity in adolescents, as authoritarian parents are typically impulsive and may transfer this behavior to their children.

Moreover, a review of research suggests that exposure to violent media through gaming, television, and movies may be causal risk factors for aggressive behavior.

Parents may confuse their child’s rebellious or naughty behavior as being antisocial. However, antisocial behaviors have specific symptoms, which may include:

  • repeatedly committing minor crimes, despite warnings
  • vandalism
  • destruction of property
  • stealing and pickpocketing and lying when caught
  • harming pets and other animals
  • disregarding rules
  • rebelling against authority figures
  • being abusive to family members and others

Some early signs of antisocial behavior include attention problems and aggressive behavior. Preschool and school-age children who display aggression may also display the following characteristics:

  • immature thinking
  • egocentricity
  • failure to internalize rules
  • impulsivity
  • severe mental conflicts
  • language deficiencies

Antisocial behavior in children may coexist with related conditions. When childhood antisocial behaviors exceed certain thresholds, a child may be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or conduct disorder (CD). If left untreated, these behaviors may persist into adulthood and progress to antisocial personality disorder.

Antisocial behavior also co-occurs with other mental disorders, including:

It is also associated with adverse consequences and poor health outcomes in adulthood, such as:

  • criminality
  • alcohol and drug dependence
  • teenage pregnancy
  • low educational achievement
  • unemployment

Early intervention is the best way to prevent antisocial behavior in children. Parents can attend training and counseling to help them learn healthier strategies for disciplining children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers positive discipline strategies for parents to help children learn acceptable behaviors as they grow.

One way to prevent children from developing antisocial behavior is by equipping them to deal with their aggression by incorporating strategies into their education.

The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice uses a three-tier prevention program to curb antisocial behavior in schools:

  • primary prevention: focuses on school-wide activities
  • secondary prevention: provides students at risk of antisocial behavior with specialized activities such as counseling and social skills training
  • tertiary prevention: provides interventions that target specific antisocial behaviors

Linking the Interests of Family and Teachers (LINK) is another elementary school prevention program that uses behavior modification with children. It provides children with problem-solving and social skills training and parents with parenting skills training.

Treatment should focus on the individual child and address their social, emotional, academic, and physical needs.

Proper communication among parents, teachers, counselors, and psychologists within the school setting is necessary for a successful treatment. The following forms of treatment may help:

  • family counseling
  • adolescent therapy and family therapy
  • social skills training
  • problem-solving skills training
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • behavioral therapy and behavioral family intervention
  • comprehensive assessment and individualized education programs for children with a co-occurring learning disability (LD) or ADHD

Parents can offer warmth, affection, and emotional support to their children and provide them with a sense of personal control and autonomy instead of being too restrictive and controlling. They can also use positive reinforcement to promote the behaviors they want to see.

Peer and family relationships heavily influence a child’s behavior. Providing a nurturing community and friendship can help children develop prosocial behaviors.

Parents, teachers, and school personnel who notice patterns of lying, stealing, bullying, or other disruptive behaviors in a child should seek the help of a specialist. Early screening can help halt the development of antisocial behaviors, especially during preschool and middle school.

It may be helpful to talk with a mental health professional and seek a referral for a specialist. Individuals may also seek help from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for nearby treatment facilities and other information.

While it is typical for children to rebel and exhibit antisocial tendencies, this may signal an underlying problem in some children, especially when the problematic behaviors persist.

The longer antisocial behaviors are left untreated, the more difficult they are to address. Early-onset antisocial behaviors that are left untreated have a greater risk of persisting than those that begin in adolescence.

Addressing the behaviors early can help prevent them from progressing into more severe conditions.