We’ve known for some time that there is a lot of variation in children’s emotional and behavioural development. For example, if we think of conduct problems (such as lying, stealing, and fighting), then some children already show high levels in early childhood and this carries through into adolescence, whilst for other children this behaviour may be limited only to a period in adolescence when they briefly “go off the rails”, and not persist beyond this. But what happens to these different groups as they grow up? Put another way, can these different conduct problem pathways distinguish young adults in terms of various mental health problems? In our recent study, we found that they do indeed.
Those children who stand out with serious conduct problems throughout their childhood will more often drink, smoke, and take illegal drugs, as well as show criminal behaviour during early adulthood. These individuals also have a greater risk for depression, anxiety, and self-harm than young adults who showed no conduct problems when they were younger.
On the other hand, those children whose conduct problems begin in adolescence but are low in childhood still smoked more and used more illegal drugs than those without conduct problems and were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. Worryingly, this group overall only fares marginally better than those with stable high conduct problems.
Our study suggests that adolescent conduct problems are not merely a fleeting issue but may result in a range of problems that make a healthy and well-adjusted start into adulthood less likely. These teenagers may need attention from parents, teachers, and youth workers who should not dismiss their conduct problems as something that will sort itself out over time. Moreover, our study serves as a reminder that children who present with high levels of conduct problems throughout their childhood years need a lot of support to improve their chances of growing into happy and healthy adults. The knowledge gained from our study might help inform the development of targeted interventions. The findings should certainly remind us that childhood conduct problems have a long reach and are reflected in mental health and behaviour several years later.