Several stereotypes have been attributed to violence among adolescent boys: sexual/physical abuse, hereditary factors, exposure to violence at home, etc. But the single largest factor that leads to violent behavior among adolescent boys is physical neglect by parents, according to a new study by Penn State sociologists, presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, Monday.

Humans thrive on love and attention, especially young children. And this attention includes physical care, like being clothed, fed, and nurtured. When this fundamental need is not provided by parents, aggression manifests. William McGuigan, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Shenango, conducted a survey among 85 recently incarcerated adolescents at the Pennsylvania detention center for delinquent males.

Data from the survey is indicative of the powerful role that physical neglect plays in shaping violent adolescents, according to McGuigan. The researchers included data such as improperly clothing a child, not taking a sick or physically injured child to the doctor, or not feeding a child as examples of physical neglect.  

In the survey, 25 of the participants, or 29.4 percent of the group, said that they experienced at least one incidence of childhood neglect. They were incarcerated for acts of violence such as fighting with peers or parents, hitting teachers or instructors and using a weapon to scare, rob, or injure another person.  

"One of the problems with studying neglect is that it is an act of omission, rather than one of commission. In other words, it is characterized as the absence of an act, rather than an actual act of mistreatment," said McGuigan in a press release. He also said that larger databases and more research on the subject allows sociologists to better measure and document neglect.   

While the researchers acknowledged that physical abuse also contributes largely to violence, neglect emerges as an even stronger predictor of male adolescent violence than physical abuse, or even physical abuse and neglect combined.  

"It sounds somewhat contrarian, but the physical abuse might at least show that parents are paying some type of attention to the child," said McGuigan, who worked with Roxanne Atterholt, instructor, and Jack A. Luchette, an undergraduate student, both in in human development and family studies at Penn State Shenango.  

Since genetic disposition contributes to an extent in shaping a violent persona in adolescents, caregivers can identify such at-risk children and ensure that they are not neglected.

"We have to look more into neglect and become more aware of how it may cause some of these violent behaviors," McGuigan said. "From that, we can build early preventative care programs than can help avoid these negative outcomes."

The research is also aiming to provide assessments for caregivers so that they are able to protect themselves from adolescents who may turn violent, McGuigan said.

Source: McGuigan W, et al. Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco. 2014.