Changes in Maternal Ratings of Children’s Overt and Covert Antisocial Behavior
Gerald R. Pattersona, Daniel S. Shawb, James J. Snyderc, and Karen Yoergera
Address correspondence to:
Gerald R. Patterson, Ph.D.
Keywords: antisocial, growth, overt, covert, early onset
Changes in Maternal Ratings of Children’s Overt and Covert Antisocial Behavior
Maternal ratings of overt and covert forms of aggression were collected for two samples of children ranging in age from 2 through 12 years. It was hypothesized that longitudinal analyses would show the slope scores for these two forms of aggression to be quite different from each other. The data were consistent with this hypothesis. An effort was made to find alternative explanations for the negative slope for overt antisocial behavior. Alternatively, it was hypothesized that the more extreme cases would not show this negative slope. It was also hypothesized that careful examination of intraindividual curves would identify a significant number of individuals growing from normal to clinical levels of overt antisocial behavior. The findings led to the rejection of both alternative hypotheses. It was hypothesized that overt and covert scores would correlate significantly for first grade boys. It was also assumed that both covert and overt scores would show moderate stability over the 5 year interval. The findings were consistent with both of these hypotheses.
earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of the
American Society of Criminology in
Changes in Maternal Ratings of Children’s Overt and Covert Antisocial Behavior
Most investigators agree that early arrest is a prime predictor for status as a chronic offender [Blumstein et al., 1986; Moffitt, 1993; Patterson et al., 1989.]. This perspective, in turn, emphasizes the importance of building models that identify the childhood antecedents that significantly predict early-onset arrest. In the coercion model, the developmental antecedent to early arrest is thought to be a sequence that begins during early childhood with overt forms of antisocial behavior [Patterson & Yoerger, 2002]. The second stage is characterized by the emergence of high rates of covert forms of antisocial behavior during later childhood and early adolescence [Patterson & Yoerger, 1997]. Presumably, boys who perform high rates of overt antisocial behaviors when entering school are at particular risk for performing at least low levels of covert forms as well [Patterson & Yoerger, 2002].
Several developmental models for children’s aggression emphasize the key role played by overt and covert forms of antisocial behaviors in predicting early arrest for juvenile crime [Loeber & Schmaling, 1985; Loeber et al., 1999; Patterson, 1982; Patterson & Yoerger, 1997; 1999; 2002]. According to the coercion model, it is the sequence of high rates of overt antisocial behavior during childhood followed by high rates of covert antisocial behavior during early adolescence that constitutes the key predictors for early-onset arrest [Patterson & Yoerger, 1997; 1999; 2002].
It seems reasonable, then, in building a theory of aggression to begin by describing the early growth in these two forms of antisocial behavior. Overt antisocial behaviors were defined by maternal ratings of behaviors (e.g., stubbornness, temper tantrums, and fighting) as they occurred during two longitudinal studies during the interval between ages 2 and 12 years. One of the longitudinal studies also collected data that described changes in covert behaviors, such as stealing, vandalism, and lying, for the interval from ages 6.5 through 12 years.
A prior examination of longitudinal ratings by
mothers for at-risk adolescent boys showed a negative slope for overt forms but
a positive slope for covert antisocial behaviors [Patterson & Yoerger,
1997]. In that study, rates for covert
behaviors were very low at age 10 and remained low until about age 13 years at
which time there was accelerated growth.
This finding suggests that in the current study, for boys between ages 6
and 12, the mean level for covert behaviors would remain close to zero and
display a neutral slope. However,
findings from the research literature suggest the slope for overt forms of
antisocial behavior would be negative for younger as well as for adolescent
samples. For example, maternal diary
reports in the classic study by Goodenough  showed frequency of anger
outbursts decreased from about .13 per hour at 18 months to .07 per hour by 8
Alternatively, the effect may be some function of
parent (and teacher) report data.
However, the effect was also obtained in observation data collected in
the home. For example, the study by Fawl
 showed a correlation of -.76 between age and frequency of conflict
bouts. The negative slope seems to hold
for both normal and clinical samples as shown in observation data collected in
homes [Patterson, 1982]. Decreases in
frequency are also cross cultural, as shown for observed age-related decreases
in child assault behavior in six cultures studied by Whiting and Whiting 
and in the
J. Snyder has put forward the hypothesis that adults successfully apply discipline to the more obvious forms of overt antisocial behavior [Snyder et al., 2003]. As he puts it, the aversive contingencies “drive overt forms of antisocial behavior underground.” In the present context, the Snyder hypothesis may account for the consistent findings for a negative slope for overt forms.
It is well known that for older samples of children, the overt and covert forms of antisocial behavior are highly correlated. [Loeber & Schmaling, 1985]. Observation data collected on the playground for kindergarten and first grade boys showed that the overt and covert forms are also intercorrelated [Snyder et al., 2003] for younger children. It was hypothesized in the current sample of younger children that maternal ratings for overt and covert forms will also be significantly correlated. It was also assumed that both forms would show moderate stabilities in maternal ratings over the 5-year interval.
The findings suggest that the sequence of growth in
overt behavior followed by growth in covert forms of antisocial behavior may
serve as a necessary antecedent for early-onset delinquent behavior. Based on the Oregon Youth Study (OYS), the
data showed that boys who scored high on overt antisocial behavior at age 10
years and who then showed the intense growth in covert forms during adolescence
were most at risk for early arrest before the age of 14 years [Patterson &
Yoerger, 1999, 2002]. Their risk for
arrest as adults was .57 [Dishion & Patterson, in press]. There was a second group characterized by low
scores on overt antisocial behavior but a marked acceleration in covert
behaviors during midadolelscence. This
group tended to be arrested after age 14 years (late onset) but as adults were
most likely to be desistors [Patterson & Yoerger, 1997]. For this group, the likelihood of adult
arrest was .27. The third group’s path
was characterized by high scores at age 10 years on overt antisocial behavior
and by a failure to move into peer deviancy training as evidenced by low scores
on covert antisocial behavior. The
likelihood of adult arrest for this group was .30. The
A series of analyses were carried out that examine alternatives to the idea that the negative slope for overt forms is generalizable. For example, it is possible that the decrease in overt forms of antisocial behavior may characterize some age groups but not others. In the current article, maternal ratings of overt antisocial behavior from two longitudinal studies span the interval from 2 through 12 years. These data will provide a test for the contribution of age to negative slope.
There are other alternative hypotheses that are also of theoretical interest. For example, the coercion model implied that the longer a child was engaged in a coercion process, the greater the increase in frequency of more severe forms of overt antisocial behaviors [Patterson, 1982]. Thus, it would be expected that longitudinal data for problem children would show steady increases in severe antisocial behaviors, such as hitting, temper tantrums, and physical attacks. It could be that only the more childish forms of overt antisocial behavior decrease as a function of age. For example, it could be that juvenile forms of overt antisocial acts (such as teasing, screaming, and showing off) may decline, but the more serious problem behaviors (such as hitting and fighting) may have a neutral slope or actually increase. In the present article, this hypothesis was tested by examining maternal ratings from age 2 to age 12 years for a subset of overt antisocial behaviors that included only the more severe forms, such as fighting, physically attacks people, temper tantrums, and cruelty to animals.
Another possibility is that only a tiny subsample of boys actually grows in antisocial behavior. As toddlers, they might show normal levels of overt antisocial behavior, and then during middle childhood steadily grow until eventually they become cases that would be clinically identifiable. Given that the N for such a group might be quite small, it might not significantly contribute to the means for the larger sample. To test this possibility, intraindividual growth curves for overt forms from the Oregon (LIFT) sample were examined to determine the extent to which some boys changed from normal to clinical levels.
Two longitudinal samples were used to test six hypotheses about growth in overt and covert forms of antisocial behavior during the period from ages 2 to 12 years. The first hypothesis was that maternal ratings for overt antisocial behavior would be described by a significant negative slope. The second hypothesis tested was that growth in the most extreme forms of overt antisocial behavior would be characterized by a neutral or a positive slope. Third, it was also hypothesized that there would be a significant number of individuals growing from a normal range in antisocial behavior during earlier developmental periods to attain clinical status in middle childhood. Fourth, it was proposed to examine maternal ratings of covert antisocial behavior to determine whether there was significant positive growth in that form during middle childhood. Fifth, it was hypothesized that at school entry, high levels of overt antisocial behavior would be a significant predictor for early forms of covert antisocial behavior. Sixth, it was assumed that maternal ratings for both forms would be moderately stable over the 5-year interval.
younger sample was drawn from the
The Oregon LIFT sample was drawn from families with children in the first grade of 12 schools that had been identified earlier as the highest crime neighborhoods of a moderate-size metropolitan area [Reid, 1993; Reid & Eddy, 1997; Reid et al., 1999]. Of the families contacted, 12% declined to participate in the study. Of those families participating, 89% were Caucasian and 20% received public assistance. The majority of the families earned $15,000 to $50,000 per year. About 54% of the children lived with both biological parents, 20% of the families were headed by a single parent, and roughly another 20% of the families included a stepparent. In the majority of the families, the parents ranged in age between 25 and 50 years.
The resulting sample included 144 first grade boys who were intensively assessed at approximately 6.5, 8.0, 9.0, 10.0, 11.0, and 12.0 years of age. After listwise deletion, data for 101 first graders were available for analysis.
The boys’ overt and covert antisocial behaviors were assessed using items derived from the Child Behavior Checklist (CBC-L) completed by mothers at each developmental point. Each item was scored as 0 (not true), 1 (sometimes or somewhat true), or 2 (very true or often true) in reference to the child behavior described by the item. Unlike observational data, these maternal ratings do not solely reflect the frequency of the behavior, but in some general sense do reflect the prevalence of the behavior (some composite of perceived behavioral frequency, social impact or intrusiveness, and warranted concern relative to the mothers’ own “normative” base for same‑aged children).
Overt antisocial behavior. Scores were based on mothers’ ratings on two versions of CBC-L at ages 2 to 3.5 years and at ages 5 to 18 years [Achenbach, 1991a; Achenbach et al., 1991b]. Based on previous factor analyses [Loeber & Schmaling, 1985; Patterson et al., 1992], a set of 21 items was selected that assessed overt antisocial behavior. For each item, Patterson and Yoerger  examined linear and quadratic trends describing change over time. A principle axis factor analysis was carried out separately for linear and quadratic terms. Items that loaded less than .30 on either the linear or quadratic factor scores were dropped.
Nine items sampling overt antisocial behaviors were selected that were shared in common by the two versions of the CBC‑L. The 9 items were: (a) doesn’t get along well with other children; (b) gets into many fights; (c) physically attacks people; (d) screams a lot; (e) showing off or clowning (at 2 to 3.5 years, shows off); (f) stubborn, sullen, or irritable; (g) sudden changes in mood or feelings; (h) sulks a lot, and (i) temper tantrums or hot temper. Cronbach’s alphas for the 9-item scales ranged from .69 to .86 across all time points. The mean of the 9 items formed a composite overt antisocial behavior score.
Severe overt antisocial behavior. Subscales of the most severe examples of antisocial behavior were formed at each time point by maternal ratings on three of the items: gets into many fights; physically attacks people; and temper tantrums or hot temper. Cronbach’s alphas were somewhat lower (.42 to .70) for this subscale of low base‑rate items. The mean of these three items formed the severe antisocial behavior score.
Mother and teacher scales for prediction study. In order to maximize predictive power, expanded sets of items were taken from the mother and teacher versions of the CBC-L [Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1979] of the Oregon (LIFT) sample at Grades 1 and 6. These items defined the child overt and covert antisocial behavior scales for the prediction study.
For mothers, the overt antisocial scale added 10 items to the 9 previously described. The 10 additional items included: (a) argues a lot; (b) bragging, boasting; (c) cruelty, bullying, or meanness to others; (d) demands a lot of attention; (e) doesn’t seem to feel guilty after misbehaving; (f) easily jealous; (g) impulsive or acts without thinking; (h) not liked by other children; (i) teases a lot; and (j) threatens people. Cronbach’s alphas for the 19-item scales at Grades 1 and 6 were .90 and .92, respectively.
The teacher overt antisocial scale consisted of 23 items, including: (a) argues a lot; (b) defiant, talks back to staff; (c) bragging, boasting; (d) cruelty, bullying, or meanness to others; (e) demands a lot of attention; (f) disobedient at school; (g) doesn’t get along with other pupils; (h) doesn’t seem to feel guilty after misbehaving; (i) easily jealous; (j) gets in many fights; (k) impulsive or acts without thinking; (l) not liked by other pupils; (m) physically attacks people; (n) disrupts class discipline; (o) screams a lot; (p) showing off or clowning; (q) stubborn, sullen, or irritable; (r) sudden changes in mood or feelings; (s) sulks a lot; (t) talks too much; (u) teases a lot; (v) temper tantrums or hot temper; and (w) threatens people. Cronbach’s alpha was .95 for Grade 1 and .93 for Grade 6.
The covert scale for mothers was the same as previously described. The covert scale for teachers consisted of 10 items: (a) destroys his own things; (b) destroys property belonging to others; (c) hangs around with others who get in trouble; (d) lying or cheating; (e) behaves irresponsibly; (f) steals; (g) swearing or obscene language; (h) tardy to school or class; (i) truancy or unexplained absence; and (j) uses alcohol or drugs. Cronbach’s alphas for Grades 1 and 6 were .81 and .80, respectively. Composite scores for overt and covert antisocial behavior were computed as the means of the standardized mother and teacher scales.
Three types of analyses were performed. First, at the item level, similar patterns of change over time among 9 items for overt and 11 items for covert scales were confirmed within each sample by reliability analyses of linear trend scores. The writers were concerned about the possibility that some items in the scales might be less sensitive as measures of change than others. To examine this possibility, linear trend scores were calculated for each of the items in the overt and covert scales using orthogonal coefficients appropriate to the spacing of the time points in each sample. Reliability analyses of those scores demonstrated similarities among the items in patterns of change over time. The majority of the linear trend score means for the 9 items in the overt scales were negative. Cronbach’s alphas for these scales of overt linear trends were .74 (PMCP) and .57 (LIFT). In contrast, the majority of linear trend scores for the covert items were positive; and Cronbach’s alpha for the LIFT scale of covert linear trends was .47.
Second, scores for maternal ratings of overt antisocial behavior were plotted separately for each boy from the LIFT sample. The mean for the sample at Grade l was .34 with a standard deviation of .34. Growth curves were examined separately to identify boys who experienced significant growth during the interval between Grades 1 and Grade 6. Clinical growth was defined by those boys scored at or below the mean value when first tested at Grade l and then scored at or above l SD above the mean for two or more subsequent points in time.
Third, for each sample, repeated measures MANOVA was used to test the significance of linear effects for overt, severe overt, and covert composite scores. To test the difference in linear effect between the extreme group and the remainder of the sample, a second set of repeated measures MANOVAS was conducted on the severe overt composite scores.
It might be noted that an effort was made to fit a growth model to these data in order to obtain a more precise estimate of the early contribution of overt to growth in covert forms. We found that there was simply not enough between-subject variation in growth in covert forms to provide a basis for such an analysis. In fact the within-subject variation across time in covert forms exceeded the between-subject variance. The findings are not detailed here.
1 describes changes in maternal ratings of overt antisocial behavior as a
function of the child’s age. In keeping
with findings from earlier studies, data for each longitudinal sample describe
a clearly defined negative slope. In
both developmental ranges, the data showed that mothers’ ratings of overt
antisocial behaviors decreased as a function of age. On the average, mothers of 2‑year‑old
children reported a score of .55 for overt antisocial items, and mothers of 12
year olds reported a mean of .26. The
findings suggest a steady decrease in the maternal composite reports of overt
antisocial behavior, approximately .029 item level decrease per
year. Notice that at age 6 years, the
Insert Figure l and Table I about here
A repeated-measures MANOVA was applied separately to data from each sample to examine the significance of the linear effects. Findings summarized in Table I show that changes in mean scores for overt antisocial behavior were significant for both samples. The data also showed that negative linear coefficients were significant for each of the samples. Estimates of quadratic and cubic effects were also made; none were significant and are not included here.
Insert Figure 2 about here
Figure 2 shows the item means for maternal ratings of the severe overt antisocial behavior. The data were used to test the hypothesis that slope for an overt scale based just on the more severe items would be neutral or positive rather than negative. It can be seen that the findings do not support the hypothesis. Findings for repeated-measures analyses are summarized in Table II. Again, each sample of maternal ratings for items describing more severe overt antisocial behavior showed a significant negative linear effect. The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that a negative slope for overt forms is a general case rather than being limited to items that only describe more trivial forms of overt antisocial behavior.
Insert Table II about here
We also examined the findings for a subset of extreme children identified as 1 SD above the mean on the overt scale at Grade 1. Examining their changes in scores for the subset of extreme items showed the now familiar general negative slope. The findings are not detailed here. Taken together, the findings are consistent with the expectation that maternal ratings of overt antisocial behavior may, as a general case, be expected to conform to a negative slope.
It had been hypothesized that during the middle
childhood interval, growth in overt antisocial behaviors might characterize
only a small group of children identified as performing within normal
levels at Grade 1 but moving toward, and maintaining, significant levels of
growth in overt antisocial behavior over the ensuing 5 years. Examination of data from the LIFT sample
[Patterson & DeGarmo, 1997] showed that only two boys identified as being
at the normal level in Grade l moved into the clinical range on maternal
ratings of overt antisocial behavior during the ensuing years. According to these findings, only a very
small number (.015) of boys can be expected to show clinically significant
growth in overt antisocial behavior during the quiescent interval. This is in keeping with findings from the
Maternal ratings for the covert antisocial behavior scale were available only for the Oregon LIFT sample. We wished to determine whether maternal ratings for covert forms would show a neutral or a positive slope for the interval from Grades 1 through 6. The findings are summarized in Figure 3. The data showed a nonsignificant positive slope. Although positive (.011), the linear coefficient was minimal and nonsignificant. (t =1.245, p = .216).
It was hypothesized that in disrupted families, growth in overt antisocial behavior begins in the preschool years and is accompanied by very low rates of covert antisocial behavior [Patterson, 1982]. It was hypothesized that composites based on maternal and teacher ratings at Grade 1 for both the overt and the covert forms would be significantly correlated. Consistent with the hypothesis, the correlation between the two composite scores was .72 (p = .000). The data also showed modest levels of stability from Grades 1 through 6 for both the overt (.60, p = .000) and covert (.48; p = .000) scales.
Analyses of maternal ratings showed strong support for the hypothesis that the age-related decline in overt antisocial behavior may represent a general case. The findings were consistent across two samples that covered ages 2 through 12 years. The literature review showed similar findings across teacher and parent-report data and across observation-based studies as well. The fact that findings for the more severe forms of overt antisocial behavior also followed a negative slope provides further support for the general case hypothesis. The failure to find evidence for new cases being added during middle childhood further underscores the importance of the preschool interval in the development of conduct disorders. The narrow focus in the present study on maternal ratings emphasizes the need to systematically sample data across agents and methods to determine the precise shape for growth in both overt and covert as it varies by age and by gender. The current article is but a small step in this direction.
The fact that there is a negative slope across measures of overt antisocial behavior demands an explanation. As noted earlier, a social interactional perspective would suggest that the slope could reflect age-related changes in reactions from adults and peers to overt forms [Snyder et al., 2003]. As the child matures physically, unpredictable explosions of coercive behaviors become increasingly unacceptable, particularly to adults. For example, observation data showed that the 10-year-old aggressive problem children performed about .70 coercive responses per minute [Patterson, 1982]. This rate of coercion is roughly equivalent to the rates for a normal preschool child. As the child ages, he learns that there are fewer and fewer settings were overt forms will be reinforced. The child becomes increasingly selective and generally decreases performance in the presence of adults. According to Snyder’s underground hypothesis, the child may shift from overt to more covert manifestations. This is consistent with the present finding that early levels of overt antisocial behavior were reliably correlated with higher levels of covert antisocial behavior.
The available evidence suggests that there may be an important developmental sequence that begins during the preschool years with the reinforcement by family members for overt forms of antisocial behavior. Our studies showed that high rates of overt behavior are often accompanied by covert behavior such as stealing and fire setting. Typically the latter occur at much lower rates than do the overt forms. As shown in the present report, the rate differential is maintained throughout the childhood interval. Prior to age 14, the antisocial child becomes increasingly at risk for extensive involvement with members of the deviant peer group. This is accompanied by dramatic growth in new forms of covert antisocial behavior [Patterson et al., 2000]. In effect, the contingencies for the first stage in the sequence are provided by the family during preschool years, and the contingencies supporting the second stage are provided during early adolescence by deviant peers. Notice, too, that during adolescence, the slopes for overt and covert forms became negative and positive, respectively.
The survey study by Bongers et al. [2003; p. 190] has a very different view about the relation between early forms of overt antisocial behavior and adolescent and adult adjustment. They see aggressive behaviors of children and adolescents as being relatively “transitory in nature and resolved by the beginning of adulthood.” The perspective is evidently based on the fact that the aggressivity scores at age 4 were twice as high as they were at age 18 years.
However, some contemporary developmental models of delinquency take a very different position. For example, Loeber et al.  take the position that the covert and overt forms of antisocial behavior in early childhood represent distinctly different paths to delinquency. In effect, childhood forms of aggression may be changing over time; but they are predictive of adolescent and adult crime. The models described in the present report represent a similar position. These correlational models suggest that reducing childhood levels of antisocial behavior should lead to less risk for adolescent delinquency. Recent randomized trial prevention designs have shown that procedures that reduce antisocial behavior during childhood demonstrate reductions in delinquency when followed up years later [Vitaro, 200l; DeGarmo & Forgatch, 2000]
From the mother’s perspective, there is simply little growth in covert forms during the middle childhood interval. The linear coefficient for these ratings was only slightly positive and nonsignificant. Although teacher ratings of covert behaviors show higher rates of activity than do mothers’ ratings [Patterson & Yoerger, 2002], their data concur in offering little evidence for growth during this interval. It is a matter of some interest, therefore, to find data showing that what little covert activity there is can be predicted from knowing the general level of overt activity at Grade 1. The hypotheses that need to be tested are relatively straightforward. It would be hypothesized that the relative rate of reinforcement for deviancy is relatively stable across the middle childhood interval. Second, it would be hypothesized that the time allotted to deviant peer involvement is limited but relatively stable during this same interval. Based on the literature reviewed earlier, the amount of time spent with deviant peers would be expected to increase dramatically during early adolescence. It is instructive to note that during adolescence, the availability of deviant peers in the social experience of most adolescents shows massive increases in contacts during the same intervals for peak delinquency [Elliott & Menard, 1996].
Progress in understanding development from early childhood through adolescence requires that we begin by accurately describing the growth in the various forms of antisocial behavior. The next stage will be to explain how these changes come about. Studies of this kind will eventually move the field away from a simplistic trait to a more developmental perspective.
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Sample Na Age Effect F Signif. F Coeff. t Signif. t
a After listwise deletion
Sample Na Age Effect F Signif. F Coeff. t Signif. t
a After listwise deletion
Figure 1. Mean maternal ratings of overt antisocial behavior.
Figure 2. Mean maternal ratings of severe overt antisocial behavior.
Figure 3. Mean maternal ratings of covert antisocial behavior.