Antisocial Behavior

Antisocial behavior is a pattern of behavior that is verbally or physically harmful to other people, animals, or property, including behavior that severely violates social expectations for a particular environment.

Antisocial behavior refers to disruptive acts characterized by hostility and intentional aggression toward others. This antisocial behavior may be overt, directed at siblings or playmates, parents, and adults in general. Overt antisocial behavior may manifest as verbal abuse, bullying, or actually hitting someone. It may also be covert, directed at society in general or property, and manifesting as sneaking, lying, stealing, and destroying public or personal property. Drug and alcohol abuse and high-risk activities are forms of antisocial behavior directed either at oneself or others.

Causes and characteristics

Factors that contribute to a child's antisocial behavior vary but usually include some form of family problems, which may include marital discord, harsh or inconsistent disciplinary practices, child abuse, frequent changes in primary caregiver, frequent relocation, learning or cognitive disabilities, and/or health problems. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is highly correlated with antisocial behavior. A child may exhibit antisocial behavior for a period of time following a traumatic event such as death of a parent or divorce, but this is not usually considered a psychiatric condition. Children and adolescents with antisocial behavior disorders have an increased risk of accidents, school failure, early alcohol and substance use, criminal behavior, and suicide. The elements of a moderate to severely antisocial personality are established as early as kindergarten. Antisocial children score high on traits of impulsiveness and low on anxiety and reward-dependence, that is, the degree to which they value and are motivated by approval from others. Yet underneath their tough exterior, antisocial children typically lack self-esteem.

A noticeable characteristic of antisocial children and adolescents is the appearance of having no feelings; in other words, they suppress their affect (responsive feeling or emotion) and seem neutral. The only feelings they tend to exhibit are anger and hostility, and at the same time they show no concern for others’ feelings or remorse for hurting others. Sometimes antisocial behavior is a defense mechanism that helps children avoid their own painful feelings, or it may help to avoid anxiety caused by lack of control over their own environment.

Antisocial behavior may also be a direct attempt to alter the environment. Social learning theory suggests that negative behavior is reinforced during childhood by parents, caregivers, or peers. One explanation is that a child's negative behavior (e.g., whining, hitting) initially stops a parent from behaving in aversive ways toward the child; for example, the parent may be fighting with a partner, yelling at a sibling, or even crying. The child will apply the learned behavior at school, and a vicious cycle sets in: the child is rejected, becomes angry and attempts to assert his/her will or pride, which leads to further rejection by the very peers from whom more positive behaviors can be learned. As the child matures, mutual avoidance sets in with the parent(s), as each party avoids the negative behaviors of the other. Consequently, the child receives little care or supervision and, especially during adolescence, is free to join peers who have similarly learned antisocial means of expression.

Different forms of antisocial behavior appear in different settings. Antisocial children tend to minimize the frequency of their negative behavior, and any reliable assessment must involve observation by mental health professionals, parents, teachers, or peers.


The most important goals of treating antisocial behavior are to measure and describe the individual child's or adolescent's actual problem behaviors and effectively teach the individual to adopt positive behaviors instead. In severe cases, medication can be administered to control behavior or reduce anxiety, but medication should not be used as a substitute for therapy. Children or adolescents who experience explosive rage respond well to medication. Ideally, an interdisciplinary team of teachers, social workers, and guidance counselors work with parents or caregivers to provide universal or wrap-around services to help these individuals in all aspects of their life: home, school, work, and social contexts. In many cases, parents themselves need intensive training in being effective role models and reinforcing appropriate behaviors in their children as well as in providing appropriate discipline to prevent inappropriate behavior.

A variety of methods may be employed to deliver social skills training, but the most effective methods, especially with diagnosed antisocial disorders, are systemic therapies that address communication skills between family members or within a peer group of antisocial children or adolescents. These work best because they actually help develop (or redevelop) positive relationships between the child or adolescent and other people. Methods used in social skills training include modeling, role playing, corrective feedback, and token reinforcement systems. Regardless of the method used, the child's level of cognitive and emotional development often determines the success of treatment. Adolescents capable of learning communication and problem-solving skills are more likely to improve their relationships with others.


Actions against laws and social customs or social norms through negative behavior.
Encouraging the avoidance of a situation or specific behavior by using an unpleasant stimulus or form of punishment to modify the situation or behavior.
Educating children with special needs in regular classes along with normal children.
Supporting or promoting social norms and social acceptance through positive behavior.
Systemic therapy—
A form of psychotherapy that addresses people not only individually but as people in relationships or groups and the particular dynamics and patterns within relationships and groups.

Studies show that children who receive social skills instruction decrease their antisocial behavior especially when the instruction is combined with some form of supportive peer group or family therapy. However, long-term effectiveness has not been shown for any form of therapy for antisocial behavior. The fact that peer groups have such a strong influence on behavior suggests that schools that employ collaborative learning and mainstream the antisocial students along with regular students may provide the greatest benefit to the antisocial child. Because the classroom is a natural environment, learned skills do not need to be transferred. By dividing the classroom into groups and explicitly stating procedures for group interactions, teachers can create opportunities for positive interaction between antisocial and other students.

See also Aggression ; Antisocial personality disorder ; Conduct disorder ; Oppositional-defiant disorder ; Peer acceptance .



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Millie, Andrew. “Anti-social Behavior, Behavioural Expectations and an Urban Aesthetic.” British Journal of Criminology 48, no. 3 (February 2008): 379–94.


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MedlinePlus. “Antisocial Personality Disorder.” (accessed July 22, 2015).