Public Release:  'Cascading effect' of childhood experiences may explain serious teen violence

Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. -- Adverse experiences early in life can lead to minor childhood behavior problems, which can grow into serious acts of teen violence, according to new research. This "cascading effect" of repeated negative incidents and behaviors is the focus of an article in the November/December edition of the journal Child Development.

Using a novel approach that went beyond simply identifying risk factors, a research team led by a Duke University psychologist measured how violent behavior develops across the life span, from early childhood through adolescence. The researchers tracked 754 children from preschool through adulthood and documented that children who have social and academic problems in elementary school are more likely to have parents who withdraw from them over time. That opens the door for them to make friends with adolescents exhibiting deviant behaviors and, ultimately, leads them to engage in serious and sometimes costly acts of violence.

The developmental path toward violent outcomes was largely the same for boys and girls, said Kenneth A. Dodge, the lead author of the study and director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

Dodge and his colleagues in the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group also found that the cascade could be traced back to children born with biological risks or born into economically disadvantaged environments, both of which make consistent parenting a challenge. They determined biological risk by assessing the temperaments of the children in infancy, based on mothers' reports; those at risk were irritable, easily startled and difficult to calm. These children are more likely to exhibit minor social and cognitive problems upon entering school. From there, the behavior problems begin to "cascade," he said.

"The findings indicate that these trajectories are not inevitable, but can be deflected at each subsequent era in development, through interactions with peers, school, and parents along the way," said Dodge, who is the William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. "Successful early intervention could redirect paths of antisocial development to prevent serious violent behavior in adolescence," Dodge said.

Fortunately, successful interventions, such as parent training and social cognitive skills training for children, are available, he said.

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The article, "Testing an Idealized Dynamic Cascade Model of the Development of Serious Violence in Adolescence," appears in Vol. 79, Issue 6, of the journal Child Development, a publication of the Society for Research in Child Development Inc.

The Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group is made up of scientists from Duke University, Pennsylvania State University, Tufts University, The University of Alabama, University of South Carolina and University of Washington. The researchers followed 754 children from 27 schools in four different areas in the United States for 12 years. The data included school records covering kindergarten through 11th grade and annual reports collected from the children, their parents, peers and observers.

The research was supported by the National Institute for Mental Health, with a grant for the Multi-site Prevention of Adolescent Conduct Problems (Fast Track) study, and by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which awarded Dodge a Senior Scientist Award to support his study, "Adolescent Drug Use: Development, Prevention and Policy." Both grants are managed by Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy (CCFP).

The CCFP, which is affiliated with the Social Science Research Institute and the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University, bridges the gap between research and public policy to improve the lives of children and families. For more information on the CCFP: www.childandfamilypolicy.duke.edu.

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