Adolescent Antisocial Behavior

What is Adolescent Antisocial Behavior?

Adolescence is the transitional period wherein a young person is expected to mature into a healthy adult.

A young person may face several obstacles to learning the socially-responsible behaviors that go along with healthy, well-adjusted adulthood. These obstacles can include antisocial behavior.

Overview of Adolescent Antisocial Behavior

You can consider adolescent antisocial behavior in two ways: the presence of antisocial behavior and the absence of behavior that can be deemed prosocial. Examples of antisocial behavior include aggression, destruction of property and major rule violations. Most children exhibit some antisocial behavior during their development, with some exhibiting higher levels than others. Some will exhibit high levels of both prosocial and antisocial behavior. Examples of this include children who are delinquent but popular with their peers. Other adolescents may demonstrate lower levels of both types of behavior, including children who are withdrawn but show no hostility to authority figures.

High levels of antisocial behavior are considered a clinical disorder. In some cases, an adolescent who demonstrates an extreme hostility towards authority figures will be diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder. Those who lie or who are violent may be diagnosed with conduct disorder.

There is a consensus among mental health professionals that adolescent antisocial behavior is on the increase along with other behavior disorders. It is important to note that when plotted against age, crime rates tend to peak at age 17 and decline dramatically with the onset of adulthood.

Only a small number of antisocial adolescents grow into adults with antisocial personality disorder. However, a large number do suffer serious consequences from their behavior. Those consequences can include social and academic failures.

One of the consistent findings of numerous studies of antisocial adolescents is that their behavior leads to severe consequences in areas such as relationships with peers, academic achievement, and social competence. The presence of antisocial behaviors can be a predictor of other disorders that may develop later in adolescence, including alcohol abuse. Antisocial adolescents can become adults who are more likely to be divorced, unemployed and have psychiatric disorders as well as substance abuse problems.

Symptoms of Adolescent Antisocial Behavior

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) has diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is a category of antisocial behavior that is often defined as a pattern of behavior wherein an individual will violate the basic rights of others. DSM-V states that the individual must display at least three of 15 criteria within a 12-month period.

The criteria include aggression to people and animals. The individual bullies, threatens or otherwise intimidates others. They may also be physically cruel to both people and animals, which can include actions ranging from confrontational robbery to forcing others into sexual activity.

The destruction of property is another diagnostic criterion and may include arson or other forms of deliberate property damage.

Breaking into homes or vehicles is also considered a symptom of conduct disorder, as is lying to obtain goods or favors. The individual may also steal in a non-confrontational manner, such as by shoplifting.

Conduct disorder may also be indicated by the disregard of parental rules. The DSM states that they must have run away from the parental home (or the home of the parental surrogate) and stayed away overnight at least twice. Running away once and staying away for an extended period is also considered a symptom of conduct disorder.

DSM-V also lists criteria for a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. It is described as being a pattern of irritable moods along with behavior that is defiant or argumentative.

The individual often loses their temper or is easily annoyed. They argue often with authority figures and defy their requests.

They have also acted out of vindictiveness at least twice within a six month period.

The settings and other circumstances of the behavior are also indicative of whether they can be considered symptoms. If the behavior is associated with the individual being distressed or has a negative impact on their ability to function socially or in an educational or occupational setting, then it can be considered a symptom of oppositional defiant disorder. If it only occurs while they are abusing a substance or are depressive, then the criteria have not been met. Similarly, if the behavior only occurs in one setting, the severity is diagnosed as mild compared to if it occurs in three or more settings.

Causes of Adolescent Antisocial Behavior

The factors that can influence or contribute to antisocial behavior in adolescents are highly variable. However, they typically result from a range of issues. Those issues can include family problems such as discord in their parents’ marriage, substance abuse by parents, or physical abuse. Other factors include inconsistent discipline and frequent changes in their primary caregiver as well as in their housing.

Factors like inconsistent discipline can result in an adolescent not being exposed to consequences for their behavior. Inconsistent discipline can result from parents with substance abuse issues and who exhibit other antisocial behaviors. Note that substance abuse can correlate with financial stress – this often accounts for inconsistent primary caregivers and the need to change housing frequently.

Antisocial behavior may be demonstrated in response to specific situations. Those situations can include the divorce of their parents or the death of a parent.

If a child is exposed to their caregiver’s antisocial behavior, this also results in an increased risk of future antisocial behavior. Children who are exposed to this type of upbringing may develop a sense of injustice that causes them to identify themselves with socially negative groups. Some mental health professionals consider antisocial behavior to be a mechanism for self-protection. It helps the adolescent to avoid the anxiety that comes from being unable to control their environment.

Furthermore, social learning theory posits that antisocial behaviors may be learned during early childhood. Negative behavior may serve as a way for children to stop their parents from acting in ways that they consider aversive to them. Actions that a child may take include whining and hitting. The child may then use that behavior in school, which may alienate them from their peers. As an antisocial child grows older, their parents may attempt to avoid their negative behaviors and they may attempt to avoid those of their parents. This results in both parties avoiding each other. This is another path by which parental discipline may become inconsistent.

Adolescents who demonstrate antisocial behavior may also have learning disabilities or health problems. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common problem among adolescents demonstrating antisocial behavior. It is estimated that about half of adolescents diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder have ADHD as a co-occurring condition. In addition, children typically resemble their parents in terms of cognitive ability. This results in situations where children who are in the greatest need of remedial cognitive stimulation have parents who are least equipped to provide it. The parents’ cognitive deficiencies also typically render them unable to afford the cost of professional interventions for their at-risk children. Thus, children who enter the world at risk typically find their environment stacked against them.

There is also a genetic component to adolescent antisocial behavior. It is believed that antisocial adolescents may require a greater degree of stimulation as a result of lower baseline autonomic nervous system activity. In other words, they are prone to the sensation-seeking behaviors that are associated with conduct disorder.

Maternal drug use during pregnancy is one of the many neurobiological risk factors for antisocial behavior in adolescence. Low birth weight, complications during birth and traumatic head injuries are all known factors.

There are studies showing genetic similarities between oppositional defiant disorder and alcohol use disorders, hence the correlation between the two conditions.

Treatments for Adolescent Antisocial Behavior

There is a significant likelihood that antisocial behavior will progress without intervention. Studies have shown that parent-child interaction therapy can result in positive change upon completion. This change was not seen in cases where the therapy was discontinued prior to completion.

Treatments that have been effective include parent management training, which is aimed at parents and teaches them to identify behaviors (their own and their child’s) and their consequences. This training is geared towards reinforcing pro-social behaviors. Also effective is parent-child interaction therapy, which emphasizes improvements in the parent-child relationship and helps by offering tools for managing disruptive behaviors.

Effective communication between parents and teachers is also an important factor in treatment. School psychologists and counselors who are trained in family intervention are important components of successful treatment for adolescent antisocial behavior.

Goals of treatment include teaching the child about the problematic nature of their behavior in addition to teaching them about the positive, prosocial behaviors that they need to adopt instead.

Severe cases may be managed with medication. Children who have problematic aggression may respond positively to antipsychotic medications. However, it should not be considered an alternative to other forms of therapy. Atypical antipsychotics have been used to treat aggression but the side effects can vary. Risperidone is the most thoroughly studied of these drugs in regards to its effects on antisocial youth. It should be noted that the US Food and Drug Administration has not approved any pharmacotherapy specifically for use with adolescents diagnosed with antisocial behavior disorder. If other conditions are diagnosed, psychotropic drugs may be prescribed which may have an effect on the symptoms of the disorder.

Drugs that improve attention and increase inhibitory activity may have the effect of improving an adolescent’s ability to benefit from interventions.

It should be noted that conduct disorder is highly resistant to treatment. The comprehensive services that are needed to provide change are typically very expensive. In many cases, it is unlikely that a child will be diagnosed at all. Schools are usually the first places that the problems are identified and teachers are usually limited in the amount of time that they can spend with students. Special education teachers are typically better able to put long-term treatment programs in place, but only if the student remains in the same institution for a number of years.

Prevention of Adolescent Antisocial Behavior

Early intervention is key to preventing adolescent antisocial behavior. School-based programs that teach adolescents about conflict resolution, emotional literacy and provide them with anger management skills have also been proven effective for stemming antisocial behavior in low-risk adolescents.

Higher-risk students may benefit from individualized efforts aimed at preventing adolescent antisocial behavior. These include counseling as well as social skills training. The most effective forms of social skills training include therapies that address social skills within the individual’s family or within a group of antisocial adolescents. The methods used in these settings can include role playing as well as corrective feedback. Other ways that at-risk children can receive support include youth centers and recreational programs that offer trained therapists.

In all cases, the main factor in the success of treatment is often the child’s level of emotional and cognitive development. The adolescents who are best at acquiring skills for communication and problem-solving have a higher likelihood of improving their relationships with others.

Emergency: When to seek medical attention

Knowing how to handle a medical emergency may be the difference between life and death.

It’s important to be trained in CPR and First-Aid in order to assist in life-threatening situations.

Call 911 or seek medical attention if these symptoms occur:

  • Alcohol, drug overdose, allergic reaction
  • Choking, head injury, seizure
  • Confusion, dizziness, drooping, weakness
  • Electric shock, lightning strike
  • High fever with headache, stiff neck
  • Inhaled poisonous fumes
  • Injury to neck, spine
  • Possible broken bone, loss of movement
  • Severe bleeding, burn, pain, wound
  • Severe mania, hallucinations, delusions
  • Stopped, trouble breathing
  • Threatening suicide, life of others
  • Unusual or extreme headache
Last Reviewed:
September 26, 2017
Last Updated:
November 06, 2017
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