The Early Onset Persistent Pattern

Many experts have studied the early onset/ persistent (EOP) pattern because such youth are observed to enter a ''developmental pathway'' to adolescent antisocial and delinquent behavior by showing aggression and other problem behaviors as early as the preschool period and continuing a pattern of antisocial behavior into adulthood. Children progress on this pathway by displaying a progression of behaviors, including: having tantrums in preschool; fighting with peers and defying adults during elementary school; being truant, using drugs, smoking, and shoplifting in junior high; and committing crimes in adolescence and young adulthood. This group constitutes between 5 percent and 7 percent of delinquent adolescents but tends to be responsible for the majority of recorded delinquent acts. There are two other important distinguishing features of EOP youth: Their delinquent acts tend to be of high severity, and they are likely to be antisocial in all arenas of their lives.

Current knowledge about the origins of delinquency is not complete, but a substantial amount of information has been amassed over the last century. In addition to identifying distinct patterns of delinquent behavior, investigators have made significant discoveries about the factors that may place a child on a pathway toward delinquent behavior. What follows is a discussion of the types of factors that have been reliably associated with delinquency at various developmental periods. These are factors that, when present, increase the risk for involvement in delinquency but should never be considered causal. This is an important point to grasp because, while strong statements can be made about which factors increase the risk for becoming delinquent, the present state of knowledge does not allow experts to make definitive statements about the precise ''causes'' of delinquency.

Studies frequently find that EOP delinquent youth come from environments of poverty marked by high levels of instability and life stress. Importantly, experts have been careful to point out that these factors do not alone account for the development of delinquency. Rather, it is the effects that poverty and life stress tend to have on parenting that make them powerful risk factors. Parents in these environments tend to have fewer resources and less social support than

A reform school workroom, circa 1854. In the past, delinquent youths were sent to reform schools for punishment, not rehabilitation, with little attempt made to understand the source of the delinquent behavior. (Library of Congress)

what is required for optimally raising their children. Consequently, they are more likely to be emotionally unavailable and to use inconsistent, harsh, and sometimes abusive disciplinary strategies. Because of their limited resources, parents in these situations tend to provide inadequate monitoring of their children, thus allowing them ample opportunities for an active life of delinquent behavior. These are all factors that are frequently found in the backgrounds of EOP delinquent youth.

Experts have turned to emotion regulation processes to explain why early parenting factors are associated with EOP delinquent behavior. They have observed that, starting in the first year of life, children depend exclusively on caregivers to help them regulate their emotions and to stay organized in the face of arousing situations. In optimal caregiving contexts, children are free to explore their environments and to experience a wide range of emotions because they are confident that their caregivers will be available in times of distress. When parents experience high levels of life stress, mental health problems such as depression, and low amounts of social support, they have fewer resources to devote to their parenting.

Without adequate parental support, children in such environments are likely to develop maladaptive coping skills for dealing with disorganizing emotions (such as anger and sadness) and are likely to behave aggressively and impulsively instead. This is especially true of maltreated children because their caregivers are frequently the source of their distress and are likely to be emotionally unavailable and unsupportive.

Research shows that once a pattern of aggressive, defiant, and impulsive behavior has been established, it is highly resistant to change. This is true in large part because the environments that help give rise to this pattern are themselves highly stable. Because of countless repetitions over time, maladaptive patterns of emotion regulation become deeply ingrained by the elementary school years to the extent that they become core components of a child's personality structure. Moreover, certain ''vicious cycle'' processes begin to take over. For example, children who show high levels of aggression and other antisocial behavior are more likely to be rejected by their peers and to receive negative attention from teachers, which in turn leads to more aggression. As these children progress through school, they are frequently sus pended and/or expelled, begin to fail academically, and eventually develop adversarial relationships with the school system. By the time they enter high school, these children have had a lifetime of training and preparation for delinquent behavior in adolescence and quickly find peers who reinforce their patterns of behavior. In fact, one of the strongest findings is that delinquent children associate with and commit many of their offenses in the company of delinquent peers. Other vicious cycles can be found in the homes of most EOP youth. Power-assertive discipline strategies are more likely to be used, which in turn reinforce aggressive habits. Moreover, groundbreaking work by Gerald Patterson in 1982 showed that parents of EOP youth tend to use parenting strategies marked by an escalation of conflict, which also reinforces aggressive behaviors.

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