Developmental origins of disruptive behaviour problems: the ‘original sin’ hypothesis, epigenetics and their consequences for prevention


  • Richard E. Tremblay

    1. International Network for Early Childhood Health Development, University College Dublin, Ireland; University of Montreal, Canada; INSERM, France
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  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


This paper reviews publications on developmental trajectories of disruptive behaviour (DB) problems (aggression, opposition-defiance, rule breaking, and stealing-vandalism) over the past decade. Prior to these studies two theoretical models had strongly influenced research on DB: social learning and disease onset. According to these developmental perspectives, children learn DB from their environment and onset of the disease is triggered by accumulated exposition to disruptive models in the environment, including the media. Most of the evidence came from studies of school age children and adolescents. Longitudinal studies tracing developmental trajectories of DB from early childhood onwards suggest an inversed developmental process. DB are universal during early childhood. With age, children learn socially acceptable behaviours from interactions with their environment. A ‘disease’ status is given to children who fail to learn the socially acceptable behaviours. The mechanisms that lead to deficits in using socially accepted behaviours are strongly intergenerational, based on complex genetic and environmental contributions, including epigenetic mechanisms. Prevention of these deficits requires early, intensive and long-term support to parents and child. Newly discovered epigenetic mechanisms suggest that intensive perinatal interventions will have impacts on numerous aspects of physical and mental health, including DB. This review also concludes that: a) subtypes of disruptive behaviours should not be aggregated because they have different developmental trajectories and require specific corrective interventions; b) the overt–covert and destructive–nondestructive dimensions appear the most useful to create DB subtypes; c) overt DB onset before covert DB because the latter require more brain maturation; d) DB subtype taxonomies are more useful for clinicians than developmental taxonomies because the latter are post mortem diagnoses and clinicians’ retrospective information is unreliable; e) we need large-scale collaborative preventive experimental interventions starting during early pregnancy to advance knowledge on causes and prevention of DB problems.