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From Temper Tantrums to Time Served

Study links pre-school behavior and adult crime

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Kids who have temper fits and show other bad behavior when they're young may end up in prison cells when they're older, says a new British study.

Toddlers who disobey, throw frequent and severe temper tantrums and struggle with wetting and soiling problems are likelier to have at least one criminal conviction later in life, say the researchers.

And while the researchers caution that most children who throw tantrums will not go on to a criminal career, they suggest that intervention programs at the pre-school level could prevent increasingly problematic behavior for certain children.

The study, led by psychology professor Jim Stevenson at the University of Southampton in Southampton, U.K., is reported in the September issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

In a previous study, Stevenson and colleague Robert Goodman followed a small group of pre-school children for five years. By the time the children were in middle childhood, those who had had sleeping and eating problems and temper tantrums were at a greater risk of continuing difficulties in later childhood, the researchers say.

To find out what happened farther down the road. Stevenson and Goodman interviewed the parents of their initial group of 828 London 3-year-olds born in 1969 and 1970, and collected information about childhood behavior and development, family details and social status.

The researchers focused on behavior problems such as soiling, day- and night-time wetting, hyperactivity and disobedience.

Starting in 1993, when the children had reached ages 23 and 24, the researchers traced any juvenile and adult criminal convictions.

They found 81 adults had convictions, including 26 for violent offenses.

And they found that certain childhood behaviors were associated with later criminal behavior. Children with a history of hyperactivity were 2.4 times more likely to have an adult conviction, and habitually disobedient children had a 2.7 higher risk.

Stevenson found that certain behaviors seemed closely associated with a later history of violent offenses. Tantrums were linked to a 3.61-fold increased risk of an adult conviction for violence, while daytime wetting was linked to a 6.37-fold increased risk.

Russell Searight, director of behavioral medicine at the Forest Park Hospital Family Practice Residency Program in St. Louis, Mo., says he was struck by the association between the early behaviors and later criminal behavior. "We do know that early-onset conduct problems seem to be much more predictive of more severe behavior later on, but I had never seen anything that looked at kids quite this young."

"The theory is that these [temperaments] are probably constitutional -- that children are born with them," says Searight. "It's probably partly mediated by very subtle differences in the central nervous system."

Beyond the distress these behaviors cause children and their families, Stevenson says there's a social cost of letting these problems develop and continue as the child ages. He says evidence suggests that early intervention can help.

In general, he says parents shouldn't worry that a child who throws the odd temper tantrum will grow up to be a criminal. "The majority of those children will not have a criminal record later on," says Stevenson.

"What we are differentiating here are not just the occasional temper tantrums, but tantrums that occur on the order of three times a week and of sufficient severity for the parents to be concerned," says Stevenson.

Searight says, "These are kids who are not readily consoled. They're irritable a good deal of the time, and they're particularly difficult if their schedule is changed in any way. They're not terribly adaptable."

Searight says children with these temperaments need to be kept on a rigid schedule, and parents need to be highly consistent. "Over time, there does seem to be some improvement in behavior" under a tight structure.

He says American judges frequently refer young people with conduct problems to the military, which is highly structured, although psychologists generally don't agree with this approach.

What To Do

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry publishes information pamphlets on soiling, bedwetting and hyperactivity.

KidsHealth provides information on temper tantrums.

If you're ready to try the extreme solution, here are the Web sites for Marine, Army, Navy and Air Force recruiters.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jim E. Stevenson, Ph.D., professor, Centre for Research into Psychological Development, Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, Southampton, U.K.; H. Russell Searight, Ph.D., director of Behavioral Medicine, Forest Park Hospital Family Practice Residency Program, St. Louis, Mo.; September 2001 British Journal of Psychiatry
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