Antisocial Behavior: Causes & Symptoms

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Antisocial behavior can begin as early as preschool and manifests as angry and defiant behavior. The causes of antisocial behavior can be biological or environmental. Learn about the symptoms, causes, and several antisocial behavioral and personality disorders in this lesson.

Definition and Symptoms of Antisocial Behavior

Brock is a 15-year-old sophomore in high school and is constantly getting suspended for fighting. He has been in trouble with the law for vandalizing a church, petty theft, and punching a hole in a wall in the principal's office. Brock's parents report that he doesn't appear to have guilt after these indiscretions and doesn't seem to care about anyone other than himself. Brock is displaying antisocial behavior.

Antisocial behavior can be defined as angry, aggressive, hostile and malevolent acts for which the perpetrator usually has a general lack of remorse for what he or she has done. These hostile acts can be obvious, or overt, or they can be more secretive, or covert. Brock displays both overt and covert antisocial behaviors, although he displays more overt than covert. His overt behaviors are vandalizing the church, fighting and punching a hole in the wall. His covert behavior is the petty theft; he had hopes of getting away with that one.

Symptoms of antisocial behavior can begin in preschool-aged children. In fact, half of the kids that have numerous symptoms of antisocial behavior in elementary school still have those behaviors when they are in adolescence or even adulthood.

Symptoms include:

  • Blatant disrespect and disregard for others
  • Lack of moral code or standards
  • Repeated lying and manipulation of others
  • Egotistical attitude
  • Inability to share or cooperate with other children during playtime
  • Insulting others without a sign of concern for the other person
  • Irritability and hostility
  • Risk-taking behaviors that can harm self or others
  • Inability to see consequences of behavior
  • Apathy in fulfilling household or school responsibilities

Causes of Antisocial Behavior

The cause of antisocial behavior is complex; every case is different and the theory of what causes antisocial behavior in a person is dependent on many factors. Some attribute biological factors like brain damage in utero, lack of oxygen to the brain in utero or birth, or nervous system irregularities. Another biological theory is that individuals with antisocial behaviors require more neurological stimulation than others to get happy and excited. This can explain why antisocial individuals seem to engage in extreme risk-taking behaviors.

Environmental factors could also play a major role in the creation of an antisocial child. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Being exposed to domestic violence and abuse in their home
  • Growing up with drug-using parents
  • Growing up in a violent and unsafe neighborhood and community
  • Being sexually, physically or emotionally abused
  • Growing up in an unstable home
  • Being neglected by apathetic parents/caregivers who failed to meet physical and emotional needs
  • Exposure to violent media (video games, television, news and movies)

If antisocial behavior is significant enough to cause serious problems at home, school and other environments, it could meet criteria for a behavioral disorder that would benefit from mental health treatment.

Antisocial Mental Health and Behavioral Disorders

If antisocial behavior is severe enough in an elementary-aged child, they will likely need to see a mental health professional, such as a counselor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. If criteria are met in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-V), a younger child could be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), which is characterized by an angry mood and defiant behavior that has persisted for at least six months.

If ODD persists until adolescence and antisocial behaviors become more severe, a teen could be diagnosed with conduct disorder (CD) which is characterized by defiant behavior and angry mood compounded with getting into trouble with the law, school, drugs, etc.

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