ADHD and Delinquent Behaviors: Is there a link?

December 16, 2014 | posted in: ADHD, Development, Mental Health, Parenting 101 | by

In recent years, criminologists have begun to focus more closely on how certain biosocial and/or neuropsychological factors may influence criminal and delinquent behavior. One condition receiving attention in this area is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5), ADHD is characterized by diminished attention and concentration, impulsivity and general executive dysfunction. Roughly 5%-10% of school-aged children are thought to have ADHD. Behaviors associated with the disorder can lead to trouble at school and at home. Given the prevalence of the disorder and its disruptive behaviors, it makes sense to think about the possible connection between ADHD and criminal activity.
Although the idea may have good face validity, which means that it has a high level of common sense, the link between ADHD and delinquent behavior is inconsistent within the research. A study published in 2012 the International Journal of Police Science & Management conducted a meta analysis, or review, of various studies seeking to better understand if individuals with ADHD are more likely to commit crimes as they age from adolescence into adulthood (Pratt, Cullen, et al, 2012). The analysis revealed a fairly strong association between measures of ADHD and criminal/delinquent behavior. Nevertheless, these effects were not significant across the studies reviewed. As such, though a link exists between ADHD and criminality, it is difficult to know for certain why this link exists or how strong it truly is.
Given the prevalence of ADHD in the general public, any association between ADHD and criminal behavior has an impact on society. In 2009 a study published in The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics examined the long-term consequences of childhood ADHD on criminal activities (Fletcher and Wolfe, 2009). The researchers followed a group of children with ADHD and controlled for external factors such as family structure, income and education. They found that children who experience ADHD symptoms faced a substantially increased likelihood of engaging in many types of criminal activities. Additionally, a rough estimate of the social costs associated with criminal activities by individuals with childhood ADHD suggested substantial costs for society at large.
In conclusion, it is important to remember when analyzing research that “correlation does not equal causation.” This means that while we can state with reasonable probibility that there is connection between ADHD and deliquent/criminal behavior, we cannot make the claim that one engenders that other. If you suspect your child has ADHD and is showing signs of acting out in unhealthy or destructive ways it is important to have a thorough examination by a pediatrician and possibly a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation. Early intervention and treatment of ADHD is key to long term management.
Long-term Consequences of Childhood ADHD on Criminal Activities , Fletcher et al; Journal of Mental Health Policy Economics. Sep 2009; 12(3): 119–138.

The Relationship of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to Crime and Delinquency: a Meta-Analysis, Pratt et al; International Journal of Police Science & Management: October 2002, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 344-360.

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