Low Childhood Self-control Linked to Adult Criminality

Deborah Brauser

July 26, 2013

Self-control issues during childhood may be strongly linked to a wide variety of adverse outcomes in adulthood, new research suggests.

A long-term cohort study of more than 1200 individuals born in New Zealand showed that persons with lower self-control scores during middle-school years were more likely to have 12 of the 13 adverse adult outcomes measured, including criminal behavior, substance use, increased sexual behavior, and even mental disorders as adults, compared with their peers who had higher childhood self-control scores.

Although adjusting for childhood conduct disorder reduced the magnitude of many of these links, most of the adult outcomes remained significant. And after adjusting for sex, IQ, and socioeconomic status, in addition to conduct disorder, "those individuals who scored higher in self-control had lower odds of violent offending and welfare dependence, were more likely to have obtained a university degree, and had higher income levels," write the researchers.

The investigators, who were led by David M. Fergusson, PhD, from the University of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand, note that their results, although not surprising, suggest that these overall associations are more complicated than has been suggested by recent research.

"The findings were as we predicted: most of the associations between self-control and later outcomes were explained by the fact that self-control was strongly correlated with childhood conduct problems — and childhood conduct problems were strongly prognostic of future outcomes, including crime, mental health, and substance use," Dr. Fergusson told Medscape Medical News.

"The major message from the study is that lack of self-control is part of a constellation of childhood behavioral factors that are related to later developmental outcomes," he added.

The study is published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Further Clarification Needed

The researchers note that a study published in 2011 assessed a possible link between self-control in 1000 children and outcomes when the participants were 32 years of age. That study "produced clear evidence of a gradient in which declining self-control was associated with increased risks of later crime, poor health, and educational and occupational underachievement," they write.

Dr. David Fergusson

Although that study has become an important part of developmental literature, the investigators note that several issues should be further addressed, including type of self-control behaviors. So they sought to extend the analyses of the earlier study "to include measures of childhood conduct problems as a further covariate in the model."

They evaluated data for 1265 participants (50.25% males) from the Christchurch Health and Development Study, all of whom were assessed repeatedly between birth and the age of 30 years.

Self-control was measured using the parent- and teacher-reported Rutter behavior questionnaires and were administered yearly between the children's 6th and 10th years. At the age of 12 years, each child filled out a version of the Rutter questionnaire. Specific domains examined included impulsive aggression, hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention, and impulsivity.

Outcome measures at the ages of 18, 21, 25, and 30 years were also administered and included 3 tests of criminal offending; nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drug dependence measures; questions about sexual history, including number of partners and age at becoming a parent; possible clinical diagnoses of major depression or anxiety disorders; and questions about any suicidal ideation.

At the ages of 25 and 30 years, the participants were also asked about welfare dependence and whether they had obtained any university degrees. Questions about median income were also asked when the individuals were 30 years of age.

Study covariates included family socioeconomic status at birth, childhood cognitive ability, and conduct problems, as reported by parents and teachers, from ages 6 to 10 years. Problems pertaining to oppositional, aggressive, and antisocial behavior were classified under the "childhood conduct problems" umbrella.

Covariates Decrease Associations

Results showed a significant association between overall childhood self-control scores and all of the adult outcomes measured except for depression:

Table. Association Between Self-Control and Adult Outcomes

Adverse Adult Outcome OR* 95% CI P Value
10 or more property offenses 0.62 0.52 - 0.75 < .0001
10 or more violent offenses 0.49 0.41 - 0.59 < .0001
Arrested/convicted 0.49 0.42 - 0.57 < .0001
Alcohol dependence 0.76 0.67 - 0.87 < .0001
Nicotine dependence 0.60 0.52 - 0.68 < .0001
Illicit drug dependence 0.66 0.57 - 0.78 < .0001
Welfare dependence 0.69 0.61 - 0.80 < .0001
Below median income 0.75 0.65 - 0.86 < .0001
10 or more sexual partners 0.75 0.65 - 0.86 < .0001
Parent by age 21 years 0.66 0.56 - 0.77 < .0001
Anxiety disorder 0.81 0.71 - 0.92 < .01
Suicidal ideation 0.75 0.66 - 0.86 < .0001
Beneficial Adult Outcome      
University degree obtained 3.54 2.72 - 4.59 < .0001

*OR,  odds ratio; CI , confidence interval


After adjusting only for IQ, social background at birth, and sex, all correlations remained significant and "largely unaffected." After adjusting for conduct problems only, significant (although not as robust) associations remained for all outcomes except for property offenses, alcohol and illicit drug dependence, anxiety disorder, and suicidal ideation.

After adjusting for all covariates, the association remained significant only between childhood self-control and violent offending (P < .05), welfare dependence (P < .001), income (P < .05), and whether or not the individual received a university degree (P < .0001).

"The fact that 2 studies using a general similar methodology were able to find pervasive associations between early self-control and later adult outcomes demonstrates the robust nature of these general associations," write the investigators.

In addition, the findings "clearly suggest that, in terms of early intervention, the major focus should be on the identification and treatment of conduct problems in middle childhood rather than on self-control specifically." They add that programs that focus on parent and teacher management and that use social learning methods have proven successful.

However, "addressing early self-control problems independently of childhood conduct problems may have beneficial consequences for later offending, educational, and occupational outcomes."

The study was funded by grants from the Health Research Council of New Zealand, the National Child Health Research Foundation, the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, and the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board. The study authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2013;52:709-717. Abstract


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