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The Informed Parent

Tracking Behavioral Traits

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Dec. 31, 2012

Many parents ask whether their child’s behavioral problems will continue into teenage years and adulthood. Children who display such problems as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and temper tantrums may outgrow them. Some of a parent’s concerns over behavior are ones that are part of being a child. These may include learning appropriate ways of coping and solving problems, and learning to get along in the world. Some children, however, seem to display behaviors which endure and become more problematic as the child grows.

As article from the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, September 2002, looked at the various behavioral profiles of children that could lead to conduct disorder in boys and girls. According to the authors, Sylvana Cote, Ph.D., et al, one’s personality is part of a biologically based system that endures into adolescence and adulthood. One theory is that hyperactive or impulsive behaviors result from an oversensitive behavioral activation system, while fearlessness results from a weak behavioral inhibition system. Another social dimension, antisocial behavior, reflects lack of empathy, low social reward, dependence and callousness, or low levels of helpful behaviors. Different combinations of these particular personality factors can predict children who will eventually become conduct-disordered teenagers. 

The diagnosis of conduct disorder includes features of a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated. The groups of behaviors include aggressive conduct that causes or threatens physical harm to others, non-aggressive conduct that causes property loss or damage, deceitfulness or theft, and serious violation of rules. The disturbance in behavior causes problems in many different areas of life functioning, including social, academic and occupational areas.

The researchers looked at a number of variables in childhood personality. Children between the ages of 6 and 12 years were followed annually for a period of seven years. The purpose of the study was to determine which childhood traits led to a diagnosis of conduct disorder in adolescents. Three childhood traits were examined--one of fearfulness, hyperactivity, and helpfulness. Fearfulness was described as a child who was fearful or afraid of new things, worried about many things, cried easily. A hyperactive child was described as one who was restless, ran about or jumped up and down. Helpfulness was described as children who showed sympathy, praised others, helped a sick child, helped clean up, helped a child with a difficult task, helped pick up objects, etc.

The researchers found that a specific combination of these three traits--hyperactivity, fearlessness, and to a lesser degree, a lack of helpfulness, seemed to be necessary in predicting conduct disorder in girls. Boys, however, who only had hyperactivity as a personality trait, appeared to have a higher probability of developing conduct disorder as adolescents.

This interesting report stressed the need for early intervention strategies with the goal of increasing a child’s self-control and social skills, at home, at school and in the community. In this way, children who are identified as having these characteristics can receive help and guidance before their small problems grow into big ones.

Originally published on November 11, 2002

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