Recent scientific studies show that genes strongly influence the development of sociopathy (For more on this, see Just Like His Father? – A Guide to Overcoming Your Child’s Genetic Connection to Antisocial Behavior, Addiction & ADHD). If we take all the studies together, it looks like genes and childhood environment contribute equally to sociopathy in our society. While we can’t yet alter genetics, we can do something about environment. Parents are a large part of a child’s early environment, so it makes sense to question whether parenting contributes to antisocial behavior.
Parents can transmit antisocial behavior to children any number of ways. The most obvious route of transmission is through modeling of antisocial behavior. Social learning theory teaches us that children learn behaviors by watching adult models. Furthermore, a child’s perceptions regarding the important adults in his life are also involved in the learning process. Within a family, parents may model prosocial or antisocial behavior that their children may observe and imitate.
Parent modeling is important for teen behavior
In a recent study, published in Child Development, Cognitive and Parenting Pathways in the Transmission of Antisocial Behavior From Parents to Adolescents, authors Shannon J. Dogan, Rand D. Conger and their colleagues from the University of California at Davis examined antisocial behavior in 236 girls and 215 boys from white, middle to lower-middle class two-parent families. Antisocial behavior was assessed in the parents by report of the other parent. Parents rated their partners on a five-point scale on four questions: ‘‘(S)he has tended to drink too much alcohol,’’ ‘‘(S)he has done many reckless things including breaking the law,’’ ‘‘(S)he has had many arguments or conflicts with other people,’’ and ‘‘(S)he doesn’t always tell me the truth about things.’’ Researchers also asked teens about their perceptions of their parents’ antisocial behavior. They wanted to know if antisocial behavior that teens didn’t know about influenced teen behavior.
The researchers showed that teens’ knowledge of parent behavior played a role in the teens’ own antisocial behavior. Teens whose parents modeled drinking to excess, fighting with others, recklessness/law breaking and lying, were likely to also do these things.
What to do if your child’s parent models antisocial behavior
If you are involved in a custody visitation dispute with a sociopath, make sure evaluators are aware of this recent study. The reference is Child Development, January/February 2007, Volume 78, Number 1, Pages 335 – 349. Document in writing your child’s parent’s drinking, recklessness, arguments and lies. Especially note which of these behaviors were observed by your child. Ask evaluators to assess your child’s awareness of the other parent’s sociopathy, if you think this is relevant for your case.
If your child justifies his/her antisocial behavior by saying mom/dad does that, take a stand. Teach your child your good values, even if the other parent does not abide by them. Make an extra effort to model sobriety, prosocial behavior and truthfulness for your child. I recommend that you do good deeds together as a family. Do a walk or run for charity, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or work for Habitat for Humanity. Consider enrolling in scouting and/or finding a spiritual community where your child can learn good values and be exposed to positive adult role models.