Parental criminality and early childhood aggression

Antisocial behaviour can pass on from one generation to the next. New research shows the seeds may already be planted by the time a child enters school.

Research Summary

  • Having parents with a criminal history is linked to higher levels of aggression in childhood.
  • This association was stronger when parents had frequent or violent offences.
  • Criminal offending by both mothers and fathers was associated with later aggression.

What is the research about?

Criminology research shows antisocial behaviour passes on from one generation to the next. Yet most of the research focuses on fathers, not mothers. Research also ignores aggression’s link to early childhood, instead focusing on the later years. Yet children who show high levels of aggression at school entry are at a higher risk of continuing this aggression in adolescence.

To understand this research gap, a University of New South Wales study looked at the link between parents’ criminal offending and childhood aggression.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers linked 2009 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) scores of 69,116 five-year-old children to their parents’ criminal records.

The AEDC is a modified version of the Early Development Instrument (EDI).

The measures in this study were:

  •  Child aggression
    • As measured by the AEDC Aggressive Behaviour subdomain
  • Maternal and paternal offending
    • Grouped by type of offence (minor, nonviolent, violent) and frequency

The researchers also took into account whether the parents had a mental illness and a variety of socio-demographic factors.

What did the researchers find?

Fathers were three times more likely to have a criminal offence than mothers. However, having either an offending mother or father was linked to higher levels of childhood aggression. This link existed even after accounting for parent mental illness. This link was stronger for violent and frequent offences.

Families with offending parents tended to have many adversities. Offending mothers were more likely to have mental illness and social disadvantage. They were also more likely to have an offending partner. These adversities were more likely for more frequent offenders.

What does this research mean?

Having either an offending mother or father is linked with higher aggression in early childhood. This supports interventions for ‘at-risk’ families during early childhood. Interventions should support both parents, especially mothers, before school entry.

Wider screening for parental risk behaviours may be useful.