Gender Infused Models of Antisocial Behavior: The Salience of Family Environment for Girls

Although the Majority Of Juvenile Offenders Are Boys, Girls Can Be Antisocial Too. However, Their Pathways To Problem Behaviors Might Be Unique.

By Mandi L. Burnette

“Oh these girls are so different than the boys – the drama! One minute they’re best friends and the next they are fighting on the floor. Then five minutes go by and they’re best friends again. I just don’t know what to do with them! I mean the boys, they fight and it’s over with…but these girls…it just seems to never end.”

– Officer Smith, Juvenile Correctional Officer

Officer Smith had spent over a decade working within the juvenile justice system, but this was his first time working with female juvenile offenders. Many officers and treatment professionals agree – girls who exhibit antisocial behavior appear in many ways, vastly different than boys. In response to such observations, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention convened a Girls’ Study Group to better understand the unique challenges associated with female delinquency.

In a 2010 report, the group summarized the following key differences between male and female offenders: 1) girls tend to exhibit less severe types of antisocial behavior than boys, 2) despite an overall decrease in arrests for violent crime, girls represent a growing proportion of violent offenders, and 3) girls in juvenile justice settings tend to report higher levels of abuse as compared to their male peers.

The challenge for psychology is to better understand how antisocial behavior develops in girls and use this information to inform prevention and intervention efforts. Better understanding gender similarities and differences could include testing and modifying existing literature on the causes and prevention of antisocial behavior through a gender-informed lens. Specifically, research is needed to examine how antisocial behavior evolves from early childhood onward among girls. Also, findings from the Girls’ Study Group suggest a need for targeted research to understand how maladaptive or abusive parenting impacts subsequent antisocial behavior among girls versus boys.

What is antisocial behavior?

Antisocial behavior (ASB) encompasses a wide continuum of behavior that varies in characteristics and severity across development. In childhood, antisocial tendencies can manifest as rule breaking or minor acts of physical aggression. In the teen years, this may progress into more severe physical aggression, truancy, drug use, and theft. No doubt, antisocial behavior in adulthood has far reaching consequences for society – as shown by high rates of incarceration, drug addiction, domestic violence, fraud, and theft.

How do boys and girls differ?

While many similarities exist between males and females, research suggests a growing number of key differences in how antisocial behavior manifests and develops across gender. Most forms of antisocial behavior, particularly physical aggression, are less frequent among girls versus boys. For example, males are more likely to be arrested for violence and perpetrating aggression outside close relationships (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). However within intimate relationships, females are just as likely as males to perpetrate violence (Archer, 2000). Indeed, within the larger social context, antisocial behavior represents a larger departure from accepted gender norms as compared to antisocial behavior in boys (Chodorow, 1978; Silverthorn & Frick, 1999). It is much less common for girls to get into physical fights or to be arrested for illegal behavior. Yet as this problem appears to grow, it is important to examine whether the same risk factors predict antisocial behavior across gender, as well as to evaluate the relative influence of these potential risk factors in males versus females.

Gender infused models of antisocial behavior

Not surprisingly, the study of antisocial behavior has a long history within psychology, as researchers have attempted to understand the risks for and best practices to curb antisocial behavior. Yet much of the literature on antisocial behavior has focused on male populations. Only recently has the study of antisocial behavior among female populations received attention. Researchers and criminal justice professionals have called for the infusion of gender into the conversation on antisocial behavior. In research, this has translated into calls for gender-informed models (Beauchaine, Hong, & Marshall, 2008; Burnette, 2013; Burnette, Oshri, Lax, Richards, & Ragbeer, 2012; Cullerton-Sen, Cassidy, Murray-Close, Cicchetti, Crick, & Rogosh, 2008). Gender-informed models are models that consider the unique risk factors, processes, consequences, and treatment needs of girls exhibiting antisocial behavior.

Are there gender differences in early antisocial behavior?

Early in development, antisocial behavior manifests differently than in adulthood. In the DSM-IV (APA, 2000), oppositional behavior disorders in young children are characterized by a pattern of defiance, disruptive, and hostile behavior. Since this antisocial behavior involves less overt aggression and rule breaking, one might expect fewer gender differences in the prevalence of oppositional behavior early in childhood.

To test for gender differences in antisocial behavior early in childhood, data were analyzed from a large community sample of boys (N = 756) and girls (N = 761) from early (M = 4.63 years) to middle (M = 9.23 years) childhood (Burnette, 2013). The sample was drawn from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a community-based sample followed longitudinally (more information about this study is available at:

In contrast to growing literature that demonstrates gender differences in antisocial behavior in later childhood and adolescence, there were only small differences in levels of oppositional behavior in early childhood. In addition, oppositional behavior was equally stable from early to middle childhood in boys and girls. Such findings suggest that the appearance of oppositional behavior in early childhood is equally associated with continued risk for ASB in girls and boys. However, more research is needed to investigate whether risk factors for oppositional behavior differ for males versus females.

What role does the family play?

A wealth of literature also suggests that harsh or physically abusive parenting may be a significant risk factor for understanding aggression in boys and girls (Cicchetti & Lynch, 1995; Jaffe, Caspi, Moffitt, & Taylor, 2004). Yet the process by which maltreatment leads to aggression is not well understood and the salience of this risk factor for girls versus boys is largely unknown.

The study summarized above also examined risk factors for oppositional behavior in boys versus girls (Burnette, 2013). Within a longitudinal model, the impact of harsh physical punishment, unresponsive parenting, low parental acceptance, and exposure to intimate partner violence, on oppositional behavior in children were tested. Notably, harsh parenting in early childhood was a significant predictor of subsequent oppositional behavior in girls but not boys.

These findings were consistent with a prior study in which we examined gender differences in the association between parenting and antisocial behavior among males (N = 842) and females (N = 808) from a large community sample (Burnette, Oshri, Lax, Richards, & Ragbeer, 2012). Once again, the sample was drawn from the PHDCN study. This sample was followed from early (M = 10.69 years) to late adolescence (M = 15.30 years). We tested the longitudinal association between temperament (e.g., emotionality, disinhibition), harsh parenting (e.g., use of severe physical punishment), externalizing and internalizing psychopathology, and antisocial behavior. The model was first tested among the entire sample, and then gender was included as a moderator in the model. Given the high prevalence of childhood abuse reported among female inmates in other studies, we hypothesized that within a community sample, harsh parenting would be a stronger predictor for antisocial behavior in females versus males.

Not surprisingly, males were more likely than females to exhibit higher levels of externalizing behavior in mid-adolescence and subsequent antisocial behavior in late adolescence. In addition, there was a strong association between harsh parenting in early adolescence and subsequent externalizing symptoms. Even after accounting for the influence of temperament and the direct effects of gender, the pathway from harsh parenting to externalizing behavior was stronger for females than males. Such findings suggest that social influences, particularly adverse early family environments, may heavily influence the etiology of antisocial behavior across gender, but are particularly salient for girls.

Future Directions

The two studies summarized above underscore the need to understand not only gender differences in levels of ASB but how gender can influence the etiology and risk for developing ASB from early childhood into emerging adulthood. Such findings provide further support for gender differences in risk factors for ASB and more specifically, the notion that harsh parenting is a salient developmental influence on girls’ risk for antisocial behavior. Future research is needed to tease apart the mechanisms by which parenting influences girls’ ASB. Possible areas of further exploration include the impact of harsh parenting or maltreatment on emotion regulation (Burnette & Reppucci, 2009). Combined, research on gender and antisocial behavior is needed to help inform the growing call for gender informed interventions for girls within the criminal justice system (Zahn et al., 2010).

Practical Implications of Gender Infused Models

Such information could be used to help juvenile justice professionals like Officer Smith to better understand the population of female offenders. Why are they so challenging to work with? What are their unique treatment needs? How can we intervene to stop girls’ cycle of violence? Findings from the studies summarized above suggest that for many girls, antisocial behavior stems from early familial conflict. Future research is needed to replicate this work and test whether behavioral intervention can address these maladaptive behavior problems and reduce girls’ antisocial behavior. In the short-term, it might help professionals like Officer Smith to understand that girls’ behavior may be a reflection of a troubling family life. Understanding and caring professionals like Officer Smith might help girls in the system by modeling safe, consistent, and effective interpersonal skills. Potential challenges in working with this group may include setting appropriate relationship boundaries, while remaining empathic. In the end, acknowledging and understanding the gender differences, and allowing professionals to adapt to the differing needs of girls in the system could go a long way toward not only helping girls in the system, but also the professionals caring for them on the front lines.

Mandi Burnette is an Assistant Professor of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at the University of Rochester. She uses developmental psychopathology theory to inform her research on gender informed models of antisocial behavior. Mandi recently served as co-editor of a Special Issue of Development and Psychopathology entitled, Multi-level approaches toward understanding antisocial behavior: Current research and future directions. Her educational background blends her interests in clinical and developmental psychology; she earned a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s degree in Human Development from Cornell University. She teaches undergraduate courses in Abnormal Psychology, Psychology and the Law, and a graduate level course on Psychological Assessment. Feel free to e-mail Mandi with any questions or comments: [email protected]


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