The influence of parental offending on the continuity and discontinuity of children’s internalizing and externalizing difficulties from early to middle childhood



Although parental criminal offending is a recognized risk factor for conduct problems among offspring, its impact on the continuity and discontinuity of children’s behavioural and emotional difficulties during the early development is less well known. We used data from a large, population-based record-linkage project to examine the relationship between parental offending and the continuity and discontinuity of children’s conduct, attentional, and emotional difficulties from early to middle childhood while also considering the role of timing of the parental offending exposure.


Data for 19,208 children and their parents were drawn from the New South Wales Child Development Study. Multinomial regression analyses tested associations between mother’s and father’s history and timing of any and violent offending, and patterns of continuity or discontinuity in offspring emotional, conduct, and attentional difficulties between ages 5 and 11 years.


Maternal and paternal offending each conferred a significantly increased risk of all the patterns of developmental difficulties, including those limited to age 5 only (remitting problems), to age 11 only (incident problems), and to difficulties present at both ages 5 and 11 years (persisting problems). Greatest odds were observed for persisting conduct problems. Paternal offending that continued through early and middle childhood had the greatest association with child difficulties, while the timing of maternal offending had a less prominent effect on child developmental difficulties.


Parental offending is a strong risk factor for early and pervasive behavioural and emotional problems in offspring, and may be a key indicator of high risk for later antisocial behaviour.

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This research was supported by the use of population data owned by the NSW Ministry of Health; NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages; and the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. This paper uses data from the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC). The AEDC is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. The findings and views reported are those of the author and should not be attributed to these Departments or the NSW and Australian Government. The record linkage was conducted by the Centre for Health and Record Linkage. This research was conducted by the University of New South Wales with the financial support from the Australian Research Council (Linkage Project LP110100150, with the NSW Ministry of Health, NSW Department of Education, and the NSW Department of Family and Community Services representing the Linkage Project Partners; and Discovery Project DP170101403); the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC Project Grants APP1058652 and APP1048055 and NHMRC Partnership Project 1138683); and the Australian Rotary Health (Mental Health of Young Australians Research Grants 104090 and 162302). KRL was supported by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT170100294).

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Correspondence to Tyson Whitten.

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Whitten, T., Laurens, K.R., Tzoumakis, S. et al. The influence of parental offending on the continuity and discontinuity of children’s internalizing and externalizing difficulties from early to middle childhood. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 54, 965–975 (2019).

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  • Conduct problems
  • Hyperactivity/inattention
  • Emotional symptoms
  • Parental offending
  • Child development
  • Record linkage