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Problem Behaviors: Intergenerational Continuity or Resilience?

The Rochester Intergenerational Study examines patterns in behavior over three generations

Terence P. Thornberry is a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Professor Thornberry's research interests focus on understanding the development of delinquency and crime over the life course, the causes and consequences of child maltreatment, and intergenerational continuity in antisocial behavior. He is the Principal Investigator of the Rochester Intergenerational Study, a three-generation panel study begun in 1999 to examine the causes and consequences of delinquency and other forms of antisocial behaviors. 

The Rochester Intergenerational Study grew out of an earlier longitudinal project that followed 1,000 adolescents, both boys and girls of various socioeconomic backgrounds who were seventh and eighth graders in the Rochester Public Schools in 1988. Each adolescent (referred to as Generation 2 or G2) and a caregiver (G1) were interviewed a total of 14 times, from when the adolescent was 14 to 31 years of age, in order to understand patterns in pro-social and problem behaviors. In 1999, the oldest biological child (G3) of the original adolescent participant was added to the study. The intergenerational study compares the behaviors of parents and their children at the same developmental stage in order to learn how behavior patterns might change or stay the same from one generation to the next. The study explores two central research questions. First, what is the level of continuity or discontinuity in behavior patterns between the generations? Second, how can we explain these levels of continuity or discontinuity?

In nearly all cases, the children of G2 mothers lived with their biological mother and she was the child’s primary caretaker. Her earlier behavior, for example with respect to delinquency or drug use, had a pronounced impact on the likelihood that the child would also engage in those behaviors. But, G2 fathers had differing amounts of contact and differing amounts of positive or negative influence on their children’s behavior. Those fathers who had regular supervisory contact with their children (at least once a month) have a strong influence on their children, while those fathers who did not maintain regular supervisory contact had little influence at all.

“We know that adolescent problem behaviors have negative consequences later in development,” says Dr. Thornberry. In the study, second generation participants with problem behaviors in adolescence were more likely to drop out of school, become teen parents, and in adulthood they were more likely to have ongoing problems such as unemployment, unstable families, or drug use. All of these consequences had negative effects on the family environment that the next generation was exposed to, thus increasing the risk of problem behavior for the children in the third generation.

Thornberry is also interested in intergenerational patterns of child maltreatment. The study collected official records and details about episodes of child maltreatment that the original participants experienced between birth and age eighteen, and also gathered records of any cases of study participants maltreating a child when they became adults. Results showed that there was significant continuity in child maltreatment between the first and second generations; those who were abused as children were more likely to exhibit those same behaviors as adults.

But while children tend to be similar to their parents, the study also finds substantial levels of behavioral discontinuity between the generations. Many of the children of people who were adolescent delinquents have not exhibited problem behavior themselves. The study finds that one of the most important factor in accounting for discontinuity is the influence of the child’s other primary caregiver. A parent or caregiver with more pro-social skills can act as a buffer for the child, protecting them from the effects of negative influences, and can also improve the skills of the other parent.

Dr. Thornberry’s work has the potential to change how we understand both the causes of problem behaviors and the moderating influences that affect the transmission of behaviors from one generation to the next. The original Rochester study has already influenced policy and programs in a number of ways, and the results of the third-generation study will also have many implications for the prevention and treatment of problem behaviors.