It's normal for children to exhibit positive and negative social behaviors as they age and develop. Some kids lie, some rebel, some withdraw. Think the smart but introverted track star or the popular but rebellious class president.

But some children exhibit high levels of antisocial behaviors. They are hostile and disobedient. They may steal and destroy property. They might be verbally and physically abusive.

This type of conduct often means your child is showing signs of antisocial behavior. Antisocial behavior is manageable, but can lead to more severe problems in adulthood if left untreated. If you're worried that your child has antisocial tendencies, read on to learn more.

What is childhood antisocial behavior?

Antisocial behavior is characterized by:

  • aggression
  • hostility toward authority
  • deceitfulness
  • defiance

These conduct problems usually show up in early childhood and during adolescence, and are more prevalent in young boys.

There is no current data that reveals the number of children who are antisocial, but previous research places the number between 4 and 6 million, and growing.

Risk factors for antisocial behavior in children

Risk factors for antisocial behavior include:

  • school and neighborhood environment
  • genetics and family history
  • poor and negative parenting practices
  • violent, unstable, or tumultuous home life

Hyperactivity and neurological problems can also cause antisocial behavior. Youth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been found to be at a higher risk of developing antisocial behavior.

What are the symptoms of antisocial behavior in children?

Antisocial behavior can occasionally be identified in kids as young as 3 or 4 years old, and can lead to something more severe if not treated before age 9, or third grade.

The symptoms your child might exhibit include:

  • abusive and harmful to animals and people
  • lying and stealing
  • rebellion and violating rules
  • vandalism and other property destruction
  • chronic delinquency

Research shows that childhood antisocial behavior is associated with a higher rate of alcohol and drug abuse in adolescence. This is because of shared genetic and environmental influences.

Antisocial personality behavior in children

Severe forms of antisocial behavior can lead to conduct disorder, or an oppositional defiant disorder diagnosis. Antisocial children may also drop out of school and have trouble maintaining a job and healthy relationships.

The behavior could also lead to antisocial personality disorder in adulthood. Adults living with antisocial personality disorder often display antisocial behavior and other conduct disorder symptoms before age 15.

Some signs of antisocial personality disorder include:

  • lack of conscience and empathy
  • disregard and abuse of authority and people's rights
  • aggression and violent tendencies
  • arrogance
  • using charm to manipulate
  • lack of remorse

Preventing antisocial behavior

Early intervention is key to preventing antisocial behavior. The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice suggests that schools develop and implement three different prevention strategies.

1. Primary prevention

This would include engaging students in school-wide activities that could deter antisocial behavior, such as:

  • teaching conflict resolution
  • anger management skills
  • emotional literacy

2. Secondary prevention

This targets students who are at risk for developing antisocial tendencies and engaging them in individualized activities, including:

  • specialized tutoring
  • small group social skills lessons
  • counseling
  • mentoring

3. Tertiary prevention (treatment)

The third step is continuing intensive counseling. This treats antisocial students and students with chronic patterns of delinquency and aggression. The center suggests that families, counselors, teachers, and others coordinate efforts to treat children with antisocial behavior.

Ways to treat antisocial behavior

Other ways to treat antisocial behavior include:

  • problem solving skills training
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • behavioral family intervention
  • family therapy and adolescent therapy

Parents can also undergo parent management training to address any negative parenting issues that may contribute to the child's antisocial behaviors.

Research has found that warmth and affection, reasonable discipline, and an authoritative parenting style have positive outcomes for children. This can help them create positive relationships and improve school performance.

Next steps

It is normal for children and teenagers to exhibit some antisocial tendencies, like being withdrawn or mildly rebellious. But for some kids, those tendencies can signal something more alarming.

Speak with your child if you’re worried about their behavior so you can have a better sense of what's happening from their perspective. Make sure to also speak with a doctor so you can come up with an effective plan to treat your child's antisocial behavior.

It's important you address conduct problems as early in childhood as possible to prevent a more severe diagnosis in the future.