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Catch them Early – The Trajectory from Early Disadvantage to Adolescent Conduct Disorders

The wisdom of resourcing infants, young children, and their families as a protective measure for the future has long been appreciated in physical and mental health and education. An early example was Sesame Street, the children’s television program which first aired in 1969 with the mission to ‘make children everywhere smarter, stronger, and kinder’. It was designed to teach pre-school children the basics of the alphabet, numbers, and important social and life skills as preparation for school. Two evaluations of the success of the program in 1970 and 1971 demonstrated positive benefits for children’s learning, school readiness and social skills.

Understanding family and wider social factors that underpin childhood and adolescent difficulties is the focus of a study by Wong et al. (2024). The study explored socioeconomic inequalities known to affect children’s readiness for school and their contribution to conduct problems in adolescence.

What were they investigating and how did they do it?

The authors collected data from three points in time to explore the path from family socioeconomic status (SES) in early childhood to conduct problems in adolescence with the hypothesis that this association would operate through both school experiences and interpersonal activities over time.

The first set of data collected from 502, five to six-year-olds included information from parents on SES, parent-child recreation activities, and screen time and ratings by teachers on school readiness. In wave two, the 395 remaining participants provided information about their involvement in their children’s education, and at wave three the parents of 206 remaining participants completed the Conduct Problem Scale of the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire.

What Were the Results?

The results showed that the higher the SES at the first point of data collection, the lower the incidence of conduct problems in adolescence through an increase in parental involvement in learning and play activities. Interestingly, the results showed that ‘socioeconomic disparities in screen time and access to school facilities during early childhood had little impact on conduct problems in adolescence.’ What is important is differences in parents and children’s recreational activities in early childhood which appear to persist as differences in parental involvement in school activities through the primary years. These appear to be key factors in conduct disorders in adolescence and highlight the importance of parental involvement in different settings.

What about Screen Time?

The results suggest that the impact of screen time depends on a range of factors including the level of social contact and support in life and ‘is not in and of itself entirely bad.’

In Conclusion

What is important is the young person’s induction into reciprocal relationship, the development of  the ordinary give and take of daily life which teaches empathy and compassion. This requires parental presence both physically and psychologically and families that are financially disadvantaged, who work long hours to support themselves and are worried and distracted are more challenged to be available to children. One can only surmise that compassion, empathy, and a good working experience of give and take in all relationships must be protective against the development of conduct disorders in adolescence. Strong relationships between schools and families and tailored support for those with less advantages to support greater parent and child engagement in the early years seems like a worthwhile investment.


Wong, R. S., Lam, A. L. N., Tung, K. T. S., Rao, N., Xie, S. S. Y., Yam, J. C., & Ip, P. (2024). Early-life family and school impacts on adolescent conduct problems: A path analysis. Family Process, 00, 1–13.

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