It’s difficult to tell if a rebellious teen’s behavior is something she’ll grow out of. A new study provides evidence that teens with certain behaviors can go on to develop antisocial traits in adulthood.
In most cases, adolescent rebellion is outgrown and teens will exhibit concern for others’ feelings, feel remorse for a wrong and adhere to social rules. In a small minority of teens, however, there are psychopathic personality traits that can be measured during adolescence to predict adult psychopathy. Psychopathy is associated with criminal behaviors and antisocial traits and can be a serious problem in adulthood.
There have been previous studies into the stability of psychopathic traits from adolescence to adulthood. However, the new study led by Selma Salihovic at Örebro University in Sweden is the first to compare the long-term stability and joint appearance of three defining and separate characteristics that are used to diagnose psychopathy: a lack of remorse or guilt, a tendency to manipulate and irresponsibility. In teens these are associated with increased levels of juvenile delinquency, a likelihood of future antisociability and violence.
The findings appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment.
Salihovic says it’s important to understand psychopathic traits in adolescence in order to understand how the disorder develops in adults. Gaining knowledge about the stability of certain traits can help in gaining knowledge about how the disorder develops and how treatment and prevention could begin at the point where the patient is most treatable.
The study involved 1,068 kids enrolled in seventh to ninth grades in Swedish schools. The participants, all of whom were 12 years old and older, were followed over a period of four years. The sample included a nearly equal number of boys and girls and 92.5 percent of the participants were Swedish.
The researchers used the Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory, a measurement tool for psychopathic traits, to examine the youths. The researchers were able to identify four subgroups that could be designated as high, low or moderate in their psychopathic traits, with either decreasing or stable development.
The adolescents generally exhibited low or moderate levels of psychopathic traits that tended to decline as they aged into adulthood. These teens were not likely to have a history of delinquent behaviors and reported positive interactions and relationships with their parents.
In a small group of the teens, however, the psychopathic traits remained stable and at high levels over the time period of the study. The teens exhibited high levels of all three psychopathic traits. The researchers were not surprised to find that these teens also had the highest occurrences of delinquency and poor relationships with their parents.
Salihovic notes that while the findings may appear to indicate that a teen with high and stable levels of psychopathic traits is doomed to psychopathy as an adult, the traits are still in development during the teen years. This means that they are not set in stone and can be affected by the introduction of therapeutic intervention.
The findings provide new insight into the traits that may predict psychopathology in adulthood. Intervention during adolescent may be effective at preventing these traits from continuing into adulthood if high-risk teens can be identified.