Intervening in Preschool Years Can Prevent Juvenile Delinquency

Sessions alter at-risk kids' stress responses, study suggests

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MONDAY, Oct. 8, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Parental action can alter a preschoolers' biological response to stress, lowering the chance that even a high-risk child will become a juvenile delinquent, U.S. researchers report.

The finding suggests "that antisocial behavior isn't hard wired, and parents can be part of the solution," lead author Laurie Miller Brotman, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement .

It's known that children with older delinquent siblings are at high risk for becoming juvenile delinquents themselves, noted the study authors.

Research has shown that highly aggressive children and delinquent teens have abnormal stress responses, especially in social situations. These youngsters seem to have less awareness of social cues and don't respond to positive reinforcement in the same way as normally developing children.

This new study, published in the October issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, found that family interventions that alter stress response in at-risk children may reduce the risk of delinquency and psychiatric illness later in life.

The study included 92 families with a preschooler and an older child who'd been in trouble with the law. Some of families were assigned to take part in family intervention sessions that included 22 group sessions and 10 home visits from mental health professionals over eight months. In these sessions, the preschoolers learned to socialize with peers, to identify feelings and to follow rules.

Other families were assigned to a control group that received no intervention.

Cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in saliva were checked to assess stress levels in the children before and after a socially stressful situation, such as interacting with a group of unfamiliar children. The children in the intervention group showed a normal cortisol response, while those in the control group showed a response pattern similar to that seen in older delinquent youth, the study found.

"Our findings demonstrate the powerful influence of the caregiving environment on children's biology," said Brotman, who is also director of the Institute for Prevention Science at NYU Child Study Center.

"We have known for some time that parents play an important role in how young children behave. We have shown that parents of delinquent youth can improve their parenting, and these changes result in lower rates of problems in their young children," Brotman said. "We have now documented that a program that improves parenting and children's behavior also leads to biological changes that are consistent with more adaptive non-delinquent behaviors."

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more about children's behavior.

SOURCE: New York University, news release, Oct. 1, 2007

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