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Boys' Behavioral Inhibition and the Risk of Later Delinquency

Margaret Kerr, PhD; Richard E. Tremblay, PhD; Linda Pagani, PhD; Frank Vitaro, PhD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1997;54(9):809-816. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1997.01830210049005.
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Background:  In some studies, shyness and anxiety have protected at-risk boys from developing delinquency. In others, shyness and withdrawal have increased risk. We argue that this is because behavioral inhibition, which is the protective factor, has been confounded with social withdrawal and other constructs. Our study addresses 3 major questions: (1) is behavioral inhibition, as distinguished from social withdrawal, a protective factor in the development of delinquency; (2) does the protective effect depend on whether disruptiveness is also present; and (3) does inhibition increase the risk of later depressive symptoms even if it protects against delinquency?

Methods:  The subjects were boys from low socioeconomic status areas of Montreal, Quebec. Age 10- to 12-year predictors were peer-rated inhibition, withdrawal, and disruptiveness; age 13- to 15-year outcomes were selfrated depressive symptoms and delinquency. Eight age 10- to 12-year behavioral profiles were compared with 4 age 13- to 15-year outcome profiles.

Results:  Inhibition seemed to protect disruptive and nondisruptive boys against delinquency. Disruptive boys who were noninhibited were more likely than chance to become delinquent; disruptive boys who were inhibited were not. Inhibition did not increase the risk for depression among disruptive boys. Among nondisruptive boys, only nondisruptive-inhibited boys were significantly less likely than chance to become delinquent. However, withdrawal was not protective. Disruptive-withdrawn boys were at the greatest risk for delinquency or delinquency with depressive symptoms.

Conclusion:  Inhibition and social withdrawal, although behaviorally similar, present different risks for later outcomes and, therefore, should be differentiated conceptually and empirically.

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