Learning and Thinking: A Behavioral Treatise on Abuse and Antisocial Behavior in Young Criminal Offenders

By Prather, Walter; Golden, Jeannie A. | The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Learning and Thinking: A Behavioral Treatise on Abuse and Antisocial Behavior in Young Criminal Offenders


Prather, Walter, Golden, Jeannie A., The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy


INTRODUCTION

Research studies focusing on the causes of juvenile delinquency have proposed that the structure of the family and the quality of parent-child relationships have important implications for the development of antisocial behavior in children, and may affect adult criminal behavior across the life course (Ganem & Agnew, 2007). These studies have primarily examined the major environmental predictors of juvenile crime: family, school, and peer variables, from the perspective of social control theory or social learning theory (Giordano et al., 2002). The central premise of social learning theory is that parents and other significant individuals in the environment serve as important models and play the major role in teaching children antisocial or criminal behavior. This article examines social learning theory as a theoretical context for understanding the effect that abuse and related experiences have on the quality of parent-child relationships from the perspective of behavioral analysis.

While the incidence of juvenile delinquency remains relatively small in the general population (Poulin, Levitt, Young & Pappanfort, 1980), recent data indicates a growing trend in violent crimes committed by youth in the United States (Agnew, 2005; Fagan, 2005; Spillane-Grieco, 2000). For example, arrests of juveniles (under 18 years of age) for murder rose 3.4 percent in 2006 compared with 2005 arrest data; for robbery, arrests of juveniles increased 18.9 percent over the same 2-year period (United States Department of Justice, 2006). In addition to increased arrest for juveniles, placement in secure facilities has also been on the rise. This increase trend suggests the need to reexamine the causes of juvenile delinquency, and to identify those contextual variables and other systemic factors that impact family relationships and affect young offenders across the life span. This effort is especially important given the enormous cost of violence to society and the quality of life of those touched by crime.

Researchers focusing on the causes of juvenile delinquency have argued that any effort to explore the relationship between parenthood and crime should focus on the nature of the quality of a parent-child relationship, rather than the simple presence or absence of parents. This is of particular importance in predicting the causes of juvenile delinquency, especially in intact-families who have a delinquent child, and in which children have been abused or neglected as part of their early experiences. Research on abused and neglected children has consistently commented that a disproportionate number of delinquent youth, particularly those charged with violent offences, were severely abused in childhood and throughout adolescence (Lewis, Mallouh, Webb, 1997). Not surprisingly, researchers investigating violent adult criminals report longstanding histories of severe abuse in childhood. Recent national statistics, for example, finds that 14.4% of all men in prison in the United States were abused as children and 36.7% of all women in prison were abused as children (US Department of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment 2006). Research investigating abuse and subsequent antisocial, aggressive acts has linked these factors to the quality of parent-child relationships throughout childhood and adolescence (Agnew, 2005; Farrington, 2002).

This paper examines the association of childhood abuse and subsequent antisocial behavior from a multidimensional complex of systemic and family contextual factors. (For a discussion and overview of this model applied to abused children placed in foster and adoptive families see Prather, 2007.) This multidimensional complex builds on Akers' original social learning model of criminality (Akers, 1985; 1998) and provides the social context to identify and examine multiple environmental variables that affect parent-child relationships and impact young offenders, and provides a rationale for a behavioral treatment approach for delinquent youth and their parents. …

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