Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Problematic behaviours in children and adolescents

Georges  P Vanier was a distinguished Canadian military officer in the  First World War, being decorated by both Great Britain and France .  He was seriously injured near the end of the war, losing a leg as a result.  He eventually attained the rank of Major-General.  Later he served as Canada’s ambassador to  France.  He was Governor General of Canada from 1959 until his death in 1967.  In 1964 he and his wife Pauline established the Vanier Institute of the Family as a means of strengthening families.   The following is excerpted from a study done by Anne-Marie Ambert Ph.D. of that Institute and published in 2007.  The full text can be found at:


Why do more children and adolescents exhibit problematic behaviours than in the past? What has changed? By the “past,” I am not referring to bygone centuries for which little documentation exists, but to the period covering the decades of the 1930s through the 1950s. For instance, the rates for juvenile delinquency increased spectacularly from the 1960s and have peaked in the mid 1990s. Although they subsequently declined, these rates as well as those for most problematic behaviours have remained at a high level among boys and have continued to rise among girls.

These high rates mean that many children and adolescents lead a troubled life and fail according to the norms of our society. As a result, their families suffer, schools are negatively impacted, and some neighbourhoods become less livable. As well, very aggressive behaviours are costly to society. For instance, it is estimated that a criminal career which begins in adolescence costs society over 2 million dollars (Cohen, 1998). Above all, high rates of problematic behaviours negatively affect “good” or prosocial children–who remain in the majority. Prosocial children often become victims, their school environment is less civil, and, as a consequence, their own behaviours may deteriorate.

In this paper, as we examine various factors related to the development of problematic behaviours, we ask: What has changed to explain the increase in such behaviours? While there is broad agreement concerning the personal and familial correlates of problematic behaviours, there is much less consensus and very little research regarding the larger sociocultural factors and, especially, the causes behind the increase itself. I am proposing that, since the 1950s, our society has facilitated the evolution of an environment, herein called the enabling environment, which favours the development of problematic rather than prosocial behaviours.

What has changed? The enabling environment

The increase in the rates and seriousness of children’s negative behaviours in the past decades cannot be explained by genetic causes (Rutter et al., 2001). The gene pool of a population needs more than a few decades to change. Therefore, one can only conclude that, in the recent past, negative genetic predispositions were counterbalanced. Indeed, the causes of problematic behaviours are multiple and interlocking. The following social elements, among others, have combined in recent decades to prevent children from getting the dose of structure, stability, and values needed for normal development. They are:

• less parental or adult presence at home to anchor children’s lives;

• fewer family rituals that attach youth to a regulating calendar of events;

• schools and neighbourhoods that no longer serve as effective communities, hence providing inadequate collective supervision;

• reduced importance of religion as a life-structuring element and agency of social control; and,

• access to media products and programming of a materialistic, individualistic, and violent nature.

In turn, all of these have been influenced by historical trends toward individualism, parental goals of independence and self-sufficiency for their children, a general emphasis on self-fulfilment, and the predominance of materialistic values within a consumerist market economy.

Considering all these elements, it may not be surprising that problematic behaviours have increased (Garbarino, 1999). Our society, especially for some groups, may present too many opportunities for the emergence of problematic behaviours and too few opportunities for the optimal development of children’s abilities and prosocial tendencies. Indeed, there are many opportunities and even encouragements for individuals to adopt problematic behaviours in large and heterogeneous societies such as ours, where social change is rapid, value consensus relatively low, and community social control weak. In the past, when neighbourhoods were more cohesive, children were more openly censured for their negative behaviours. The current environment too often enables the emergence of problematic behaviours even when no genetic predispositions exist.


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