Wild Toddlers, Troubled Adults

In recent decades, social scientists have accrued considerable evidence indicating that out-of-control preschoolers often mature into disturbed and disruptive adults. And now a new study has established that the toddlers headed for a lifetime of distress disproportionately come from single-parent households.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow and national public-health agencies, this new study focuses on conduct disorder among preschoolers, especially “life-course persistent C[onduct]D[disorder]” of the sort that “emerges in early life and persists into adulthood with major adverse social, physical and health consequences.” “Difficulties present early in life,” the researchers explain, “are often predictive of behavioural problems and other negative health outcomes at later stages of childhood, adolescence and beyond.”

To identify the circumstances in which young children are most likely to develop conduct disorder, the researchers pored over behavioral data collected for a nationally representative sample of 2,070 children at 34, 46, and 58 months of age. Statistical analysis of these data reveals that the children most likely to manifest signs of conduct disorder differ from their young peers in significant ways. These unruly children are, for instance, especially likely to come from homes where the mother smokes and from homes where parents believe in harsh discipline. But recent trends in family life make it particularly disconcerting that the Scottish researchers highlight family structure as a strong statistical predictor of persistent conduct disorder.

Compared to children living with both parents, children living in broken homes appear more than four times as likely to manifest signs of persistent conduct disorder in a simple statistical comparison (Odds Ratio of 4.25). Even in a more sophisticated statistical model that takes into account household income and other background variables, children from non-intact families appear almost twice as likely as peers from intact families to manifest signs of persistent conduct disorder (Odds Ratio of 1.82).

Given the way that difficult toddlers become troubled adults, it is entirely understandable that the researchers would highlight the possibility of finding “effective interventions for preschool children with behaviour problems,” interventions that “can reduce the risk of developing more serious psychopathology” later in life. On both sides of the Atlantic, though, perhaps it is time to recognize the need for prevention of preschool problems rather than intervention after these problems are diagnosed. And few types of prevention count more than that which parents provide through an intact marriage.

(Philip Wilson et al., “What Predicts Persistent Early Conduct Problems? Evidence from the Growing Up in Scotland Cohort,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 67.1 [2013]: 76-80.)