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To What Extent does Childhood Trauma Influence Criminal Behaviour?

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The debate on what the causes of criminal behaviour has been a long going one. Many have tried to explain and give reason for the actions of offenders. But at the end of every debate, people are left with the question: Is There a Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Criminal behaviour? And if there is there is a connection at all how much does their upbringing contribute to antisocial behaviour.

The Natural Institution of mental health defines childhood trauma as “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects”. However traumatic events can range from war related trauma such as terrorism or combat related, to school/community violence. So, it is important to understand that interpersonal childhood trauma will be the foundation in which childhood trauma and its influence on criminal behaviour will be discussed. Interpersonal childhood trauma can be understood as: trauma from something that is done to a child: witnessing or experiencing violence in family or home or sexual, physical and emotional abuse at home or elsewhere. Trauma from lack of nurture: physical and emotional neglect. Trauma due to caregivers suffering from their own trauma and are unable to meet the emotional needs of the child: Parent that are in prison, divorce of parents and parents misuse of substances such as alcohol or drugs. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization states that “early childhood defined as the period from birth to eight years old, is a time of remarkable growth with the brain development at its peak. During this stage, children are highly influence by the environment and the people that surround them”

Criminal behaviour is also a large branch with many definitions. However, the definition of what constitutes crime depends on the values of the society observed. (Reckless, W.C 1940).

But the definition of Criminal behaviour proposed by US Legal states that “Criminal behaviour refers to conduct of an offender that leads to and including the commission of an unlawful act” The essay will discuss the justification of criminal behaviour influenced by childhood trauma by this definition.

The ACE database has been collected as a result of a long-term collaboration between Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, California as well as the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. With over 17,000 participants, ACE wanted to find whether there is link between childhood trauma and health, social and economic consequences. The results were concluded that there is in fact a strong correlation between negative childhood experiences and later risks close to criminalism and other negative social consequences.

The questionnaire asked for information on negative childhood experiences that occurred before the inmates 18th birthday, relating to categories of abuse such as psychological, physical, sexual, neglect and family disfunction. In addition to these questions regarding drug abuse, mental illness and whether or not a family member had been imprisoned. Various studies using this data showed a strong correlation between those reporting abuse throughout childhood and that person’s own later willingness to engage in violence, whether sexual or physical. There is an increasing amount of data that has investigated criminal offenders and identified they were four times more likely than average to report the negative childhood incident.

Recently there have been studies examining the frequency of negative childhood events in juvenile offenders with a broad, general sample from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) database. ACEs are defined by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years) such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing violence in the home; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding such as growing up in a household with substance misuse, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling, or other member of the household”. One recent study conducted in Florida showed a definitive link between adverse childhood experience and juvenile offenders. The study was the first in the United States to specifically explore whether these adverse experiences was correlated to juvenile crime. The results show that, with 50% of juvenile offenders reporting four or more ACEs. The study, conducted by Michael T. Baglivio et al (2014), investigate The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in the lives of Juvenile Offenders by examining the relationship between ACE for distinguishing offending patterns through late adolescence in a large sample of juvenile offenders. Baglivio et al (2014) used data from 64,329 juvenile offenders in Florida, majority of which were 18 years old. The sample used consisted of 29% white males, 9% white females, 34% black males and 9% black females, 13% Hispanic males, 3% Hispanic females. The study also used a Semi-Parametric Group Bases Method (SPGM) in order to identify the different latent groups of official offending trajectories based on the individual’s variation over time. A Multinomial logistics regression was used to explore which measures distinguished between trajectory groups. The findings indicate that five latent trajectory offending groups of offending through the age of 18 and that increased exposure to multiple adverse childhood experiences distinguishes early onsets and chronic offending from other patterns of offending. Baglivio et al concluded that childhood maltreatment as measure by the cumulative stressor adverse childhood experiences score influences official offending patterns.

Therefore, Baglivio (2014) proves that being exposed to adverse childhood experiences such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse or emotional and physical neglect, can not only increase an individual’s chance in committing criminal acts, but also increase chances of them re-offending. The variety in ethnicity also allows for the results to be better generalizable to the greater population. Furthermore, the use of the ACE questionnaire which focuses on the aspects of childhood trauma. This means the study has a standardised procedure allows for the study to be replicable, which in turn increases the reliability of the results. However, the reliability of the results may be in question due to potential demand characteristics from the juvenile offender which means that some results may not be an actual reflection of the extent to which childhood trauma influences criminal behaviour. This overall makes for a good study in answering my question.

A study conducted by Merih Altintas and Mustafa Bilici (2018) supports the idea that childhood trauma may be linked to criminal behaviour in adulthood. The objective of the study was the ‘Evaluation of childhood trauma with respect to criminal behaviour, dissociative experiences adverse family experiences and psychiatric backgrounds amount prison inmates.’ 200 prison inmates were used in this questionnaire-based study. The data on adverse family experiences during childhood, demographic characteristics and mental backgrounds were collected through a face to face interview. A psychometric evaluation was then conducted using the childhood trauma questionnaire (CTQ – 28) and Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES). The finding of the study show that several ACEs items were more common in females than in males. However, in male inmates there was a higher rate of substance abuse (48.0% vs 29.0%) and previous convictions (50.0% vs 25.0%). Males had a younger age at first crime (24.9  8.9 years vs 30.3  9.2 years) whereas females had higher rates of violent crimes (69.2% vs 30.8%). Altinta and Bilici also noted a significant relationship between CTQ total score and age of first offense. Altina et al concluded that the findings revealed a high prevalence of and significant associations among childhood trauma, dissociative experiences, adverse family experiences and psychiatric problems in a group of imprisoned males and females. Childhood trauma characterized by sexual abuse and violent crimes were found to be more predominate in female prison inmates, on the other hand a criminal background with a younger age of offence and repeated previous convictions, substance abuse and sexual crimes were more prevalent amounts male prison inmates. Thus, the findings indicate a potential link between childhood trauma and criminal behaviour in terms of subsequent offending.

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Through Altintas and Bilici (2018) study it is evident that childhood trauma can be linked to criminal behaviour. Although, it does not directly apply to the severity of the offense, it does link to the criminal behaviour in terms of actually offending. However, the sample itself is too small when talking about the effects of childhood trauma, and thus the link between childhood trauma and criminal behaviour is up for debate. The use of face-to-face interviews could also be proven problematic. Since the questions asked by the interviewer are not specified, it is possible that there is some aspect of experimenter effect which influences the answers the participants gave. Conversely, the interview gives the researcher qualitative data, which is richer and more in-depth, thus allowing the conclusions drawn from the participants about the influence of childhood trauma and its influence on criminal behaviour to be more concrete. This study does act as a good piece of evidence in answering my question, however, the conclusion drawn only suggest a potential link and not a definite answer.

The next study conducted by Caparo et al (2013) investigates childhood relational trauma in a group of violent offenders from Italy. They hypothesized a higher level of early childhood trauma associated with higher scores on psychopathy. The participants in this study consisted of twenty-two offenders convicted for violent crime aged 22-60. Within this group 14 of them had committed murder, 4 had committed rape, 4 were convicted of child sex offenders. The Traumatic Experience Checklist (TEC; Nijhuis, van der Hart & Kruger, 2002) was used to asses childhood relational trauma which is a self-report measure addressing 29 types of potential traumatic events. The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003) was used to asses psychopath. This is a 20-item measure scored on the basis of an interview and on file information. Caparo et al (2013) found that there was a high prevalence of childhood experiences of neglect and abuse among the offenders. Higher levels of childhood trauma were found with participants who obtained high scores in the PCL-R. Also noted was a significant negative association between age of first relational trauma and psychopathy scores. Thereby, Caparo et al (2013) concluded that early exposure to relational trauma in childhood can play a relevant role in the development of more sever psychopathic traits

Through this study, it is clear that not only does early childhood trauma result in criminal behaviour, but it can also result in the manifestation of psychopathic traits which results in committing more violent crimes. Which again does answer the question at hand.

The three studies conducted above therefore give evidence to the fact that criminal behaviour is in fact influenced by childhood trauma. However, following decades of analysis and prevention campaigns early interpersonal trauma remains an understudied subject matter, especially when it comes to identifying protective factors such as partner support or certain personality traits, that may have an effect on psychological and rational adult functioning. Furthermore, it is evident through the studies that early relationships are do affect the rational thinking of individuals, and thus has an effect on whether or not criminal behaviours are exhibited and to what degree. The challenges related to the event of such studies lie in the abundance of intrapersonal, environmental, and interpersonal variables that has to be examined which I believe would be better studied using longitudinal and structured analysis protocols. With this in mind, future studies should focus on following childhood interpersonal trauma survivors through many years as attainable, while investigating specific variables within the survivor’s close relationships (e.g., parental, social and partner support). Integrative models such as the Biopsychosocial model by Geroge Engel, 1977 which suggest that the reason for certain behaviours, may be due to a combination of factors as to supposed to just childhood trauma in this case. Additionally, both psychological and relational variables should also be examined in order to better perceive the survivor’s psychological and social development following childhood interpersonal trauma (Dugal et al, 2019)

One of the many arguments used to justify the actions of offenders is that it is in the offender’s personality to do things against the law and this is predetermined by genes passed down from parent to child. But to understand why one’s personality might be used to justify their actions; it is important to understand what the term personality means. multiple theories have been proposed on what is meant by the term personality thus there is not one set definition for personality, many psychologists put forward their interpretation of what a personality is. “That is which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation” (Raymond B. Cattell, 1950). “Although no single definition is acceptable to all personality theorists, we can say that personality is a pattern of relatively permanent traits and unique characteristics that give both consistency and individuality to a person’s behaviour” (Feist and Feist 2009). Although there are multiple definitions of personality, most focus on the pattern of behaviours and characteristics that can help predict and explain a person’s behaviour. The American Psychology Association defines personality as “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving” However, explanations for personalities can focus on multiple influences, ranging from genetic, to environmental. However, can we predict the personality of individuals based on the lineage, or their surrounding? And if so, is there a pattern which arises with certain individuals such as criminals.

In this case, the environment should not be simply labelled as the biosphere in which all living animals inhabit but should be seen as the surroundings of specific individuals. Economic distress, influences and interventions, peers, family, racial and ethnic composition, community, media and technology (Paramma B Kuravatti, Rajkumar P Malipatli 2017) These are aspects of the environment that shape the personality of an individual. People learn from their environment, learning being defined as the “process of acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviour, skills, values or preferences” (Richard Gross, 2012) because this is what people are most exposed to and to understand these and their influences on our outlook on life should allow us to determine which aspect has the greater effect on an individual and which of these aspects are more present in individuals who display criminal behaviour.

Albert Bandura’s Social learning theory (SLT) proposed in 1925 suggest that learning occurs directly, through operant conditioning, but also indirectly, through observation and imitation of others within a social context. Bandura believed in the behaviourist approach of learning, the idea that much of our behaviour is based from experience. This can suggest that we engage in either criminal or noncriminal behaviour based on the social environment around us and that we’re especially influenced by how other people reward or model behaviour. Operant condition consists of only positive and negative reinforcement, however the SLT, introduces Vicarious reinforcement. For indirect learning to take place, an individual has to observe behaviour of others. The learner may copy this behaviour and make it their own, but this would only be the case of the behaviour is seen to be rewarded, reinforcing the behaviour, rather than being punished, therefore, the learner not only observes the behaviour, but most importantly observes the consequences of a behaviour. “Most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others, one form an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Bandura, 1977)

Bandura conducted an experiment in 1961 which could allow researchers to better understand the fundamentals behind learning aggressive behaviours. The aim of the study was to investigate if social behaviours, such as aggression, can be acquired by observation and imitation (Bandura, Ross and Ross 1961) the participants were first judged by a 5-point rating scale in order to test for aggression. Children with the same level of aggression were placed into the same group. Furthermore, in order to reach a significant inter-rater reliability, two researchers rated 51 children independently and then the rates where compared thus increasing the reliability of the experiment. The experiment was manipulated in 3 conditions: Aggressive model shown to 24 kids, Non-aggressive model shown to 24 kids and no model shown 24 kids (control condition). The most important aspect of the experiment is the procedure in which the children’s behaviour were manipulated. The first stage of each condition was the modelling stage, in which the children were shown individuality a model behaving aggressively to a ‘Bobo Doll’ where they would proceed to attack the doll using different items and shouting words such as “Pow” and “Boom”. In the second stage was the aggressive arousal, in which the children would play with an attractive toy and then told that they weren’t allowed to play with it. The aim being to induce mild aggression in the children. The final stage was then to test for delayed imitation, the children were presented with aggressive and non-aggressive toys and observed through a one-way mirror for 20 minutes. Bandura found that children who observed the aggressive where more likely to imitate the same aggressive behaviours observed. Specifically, boys tended to imitate more physically same sex models than girls did, whereas girls displayed more verbal aggression if the model was female. Thus, Bandura concluded that his findings do support his learning Social learning theory. The study has a standardized procedure which means that the study is easily replicable. Bandura reconducted the experiment again in 1963 and found that the findings were the same.

Banduras study does state that behaviours can be learnt and then replicated during a different moment in time. With this in mind it can also be deduced that exposure to constant aggressive behaviour will lead to an increase aggressive individual, thus shaping their personality to be more erratic and aggressive. Furthermore,

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To What Extent does Childhood Trauma Influence Criminal Behaviour? (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/to-what-extent-does-childhood-trauma-influence-criminal-behaviour/
“To What Extent does Childhood Trauma Influence Criminal Behaviour?” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/to-what-extent-does-childhood-trauma-influence-criminal-behaviour/
To What Extent does Childhood Trauma Influence Criminal Behaviour? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/to-what-extent-does-childhood-trauma-influence-criminal-behaviour/> [Accessed 9 Aug. 2022].
To What Extent does Childhood Trauma Influence Criminal Behaviour? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Aug 9]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/to-what-extent-does-childhood-trauma-influence-criminal-behaviour/
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