Feature Archive

Born to Be Bad?

There may be a biological reason for violent behavior.

WebMD Feature

May 29, 2000 -- For the first eight months of his life, Matthew cried 18 hours a day.

As he grew older, he terrorized baby-sitters, throwing tantrums or locking them out of the house. At age 4, his response to a time-out in his room was to kick the door down or climb out a window.

His behavior was so difficult that his pediatrician phoned Matthew's mother every morning for a year to find out how she was coping. "I think he called because he was so afraid we would do something to Matthew," says his mother, Diane.

For years, parents and scientists alike have wondered whether some children are born bad and, if so, why. Now research is finally uncovering some of the biological traits that may be the cause of troubled behavior. At the same time, new educational techniques are helping parents steer difficult children away from a path of violence.

About 10% of children are born, like Matthew, with a mix of "challenging traits," says Helen Neville, RN, director of the Inborn Temperament Project at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif. These children are easily frustrated, very sensitive, emotionally intense, and have difficulty coping with change.

"The parent who thinks this is an obnoxious, stubborn, difficult kid who just needs to get some sense knocked into him or her is going to be in a real war with one of these kids," says Neville. "The child's self-esteem is going to suffer. And that's what we think is the setup for conduct disorder."