Characteristics of Anti-Social Behavior in Children

by Kay Tang

    Conduct that disrupts society is antisocial behavior, which includes aggressive behavior that can cause harm to others, infringe upon another person’s basic rights or violate cultural norms. The aggression can also be covert, such as lying or thievery. Antisocial children may exhibit various behaviors, ranging from disobedience to boisterousness. Children who exhibit more extreme forms of antisocial behavior may have problems with the law.

    Inability to Learn

    A highly significant characteristic of antisocial children is the incapacity to learn from their social and cultural environment as well as in an academic situation, according to the “Encyclopedia of Special Education” by Cecil Reynolds. This inability can’t be attributed to such factors as health issues, intellectual deficits or learning disabilities. However, an antisocial child is able to learn enough to comprehend the difference between reward and punishment. According to Irving Weiner’s book “The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology,” an antisocial individual typically has a learning style that is more receptive to reward than disciplinary action. In fact, an antisocial child will continue to engage in maladaptive behavior despite the threat of punishment and also sees an upside to aggressive behavior.

    Inappropriate Behavior

    Because antisocial children are unable to learn appropriate behavior in a particular social or cultural context, they tend to exhibit inappropriate behavior, such as temper tantrums, use of profanity, bossiness, excessive jealousy, impertinence, fighting or flamboyant attention-seeking. It’s not unusual for the antisocial child to react to and defy authority figures. In addition, the antisocial child will repeatedly violate social norms until this behavior forms a pattern in terms of frequency, intensity and duration, according to Reynolds. Such inappropriate behavior inhibits the ability of the antisocial child to form healthy interpersonal relationships. Because he also lacks empathy or warmth toward other people, he grows even more isolated.

    Physiological Factors and Symptoms

    Research has revealed that individuals with antisocial behavior are less sensitive to stress and show signs of hypo-arousal, or disassociation from emotions, memories, other people, the body and identity. This same low heart rate reactivity and resting heart rate are found in individuals who lack fear, according to Weiner. Compared to a normal child, the antisocial child does not grow anxious over or dread punishment. This absence of fear can hinder the development of the child’s conscience and moral compass as well as free him to use aggression to resolve conflicts with other people. In addition, antisocial children tend to suffer from depression and unhappiness, developing physical symptoms associated with these feelings.

    Types of Antisocial Behavior

    There are two types of antisocial behavior -- limited and lifelong. Antisocial behavior for most youth is limited to their adolescent years, according to T. Steuart Watson's book, "Handbook of Child Behavior Therapy." The majority of juvenile offenders fall into this category. As they mature into adults, they return to the more normal and adjusted behavior seen in earlier childhood. A youth who has displayed antisocial behavior at every stage in his life will more likely turn to criminal behavior as an adult as well as develop a pathological personality. Long-term antisocial behavior typically starts very early in childhood.

    About the Author

    Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.

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