What Family Factors Need to Be Considered in the Assessment and Treatment of Conduct Disorders?
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Published: 10th Dec 2019
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What family factors need to be considered in the assessment and treatment of Conduct Disorders?
Conduct Disorders (CD) are the most common reason for referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), accounting for 30– 40% of referrals (Ford, Hamilton, Meltzer, & Goodman, 2007; Reid, 1993). They have high prevalence levels based on a national sample of 10,000 children aged 5–15 years, 3.9% of boys and 1.8% of girls met diagnostic criteria for oppositional defiant disorder. The comparable prevalence for CD was 3.5% for boys and 1.4% for girls (Meltzer, Gatward, Goodman, & Ford, 2003).
The cost associated with CDs is high, in terms of the impact on the individual, family and wider society. CD’s are strongly developmentally linked to delinquency and adult criminality. The estimated annual cost per child if conduct disorder is left untreated is £15,270 (Richardson & Joughin, 2002). However, this is potentially avoidable through effective treatment. A study by Bonin and colleagues (2011) demonstrated the potential longer-term impact of a parenting programme versus no treatment delivered to a 5-year-old with CD. The results from this model showed that the potential cost savings to public services over 20 years were about 2.8 to 6.1 times the intervention costs.
Additionally, epidemiological studies suggest that approximately half of those who meet diagnostic mental health criteria for CD will also meet criteria for at least one other disorder. The most frequent combination of problems is hyperactivity with CD, found in about 45–70% of those with CD (Richardson & Joughin, 2002).
Despite this high prevalence, costs and functional impairment, less than a quarter of affected children and young people receive any specialist help (Vostanis, Meltzer, Goodman, & Ford, 2003) and much of this is likely to be ineffective (Scott, 2007). Understanding family factors and how they influence efficacy and engagement in assessment and treatment of CDs is necessary to increase provision of evidence based treatments to those who need them. This essay will assess literature around family risk and maintaining factors, with a particular focus on how they relate to assessment and treatment.
Both of the recognized psychiatric classification systems (ICD-10 and DSM-V) define CD as a repetitive and persistent pattern of aggressive, defiant or antisocial behaviour. Oppositional defiant disorder is a milder variant mostly seen in younger children, however can overlap in definition and presentation with CD. DSM-V distinguishes two subtypes of CD on the basis of age at onset. This follows extensive evidence that early onset conduct problems, before the age of 10, often persist and lead to more severe conduct problems, poor mental heath and criminal and anti-social behaviour in adulthood, and is thought to have more underlying children and family risk factors, including coming from dysfunctional family backgrounds (Moffitt, 2003, Mofitt, 2006). For the purposes of this essay the term ‘CDs’ is used to encompass both disorders.
This essay will consider family factors in terms of contextual family factors, stressors and parenting factors, due to the scope of this essay genetic influences as they are less relevant to psychological assessment and treatment.
The purpose of an assessment can be considered as a decision-making process in which a clinician decides if behavioural problems are severe enough to qualify as a CD. This involves assessing if they are qualitatively different from the ‘normal’ emergence of oppositional behaviours, as part of an age-appropriate demonstration of a growing sense of individualization and autonomy.
It should be noted when making a diagnosis of a CD in young people a thorough assessment of need, that takes into account the complex family environments, comorbidities and other factors that are involved in the development and maintenance of the disorder is required. As CDs often vary across settings and are context dependent, to achieve a comprehensive understanding of a young person’s difficulties, the involvement of multiple informants (child, parent, teachers) is important.
The assessment of the family, and particularly parent functioning, is an essential part of any comprehensive assessment. The key elements that encompass positive and negative aspects of parenting should be considered. These include the use of coercion, the relationship with the wider family, the presence of violence, the parent–child relationship, the physical and mental health of the parents and other family members and the involvement of any family members with the criminal justice system. From this a plan for treatment including a diagnostic formulation and considerations about aetiology consistent with a biopsychosocial approach should be proposed.
These assessment is recommended to be conducted through a combination of clinical interviews; often with the child and carers, in addition to structured observations and the use of validated assessment tools.
Multifactorial influences have been identified in relation to CDs therefore treatment for CDs should be based on a comprehensive formulations of the child’s and families difficulties which take into account predisposing precipitating and maintain factors within the child family and wider social system.
Psychological interventions for conduct disorders have been developed across a wide spectrum from those focused on the psychological wellbeing of the individual child to those which incorporate familial and social domains. The interventions currently available have also been developed from a range of theoretical frameworks, from those based on social learning theory to more individually conceptualised cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approaches, systemic approaches and psychodynamic approaches.
NICE (20xx) recommends that selective classroom based prevention is offered to those whose risk is significantly higher than average due to individual, family and social risk factors. Treatment for children with or at risk of developing a CD is advised to be cognitive-behavioural problem solving programmes, and group parent programmes. Treatment for 11-17 year olds should be multimodal, such as multisystem therapy, with intervention provided at individual, family, school, criminal justice and community levels. (See Appendix 1 for full details of NICE recommendations).
In the UK, there has been a drive to disseminate parenting programmes widely (Scott, 2010). The main goals of parenting interventions are to enable parents to improve their child’s behaviour (Scott, 2008) and to improve their relationship with their child. In the majority of programmes, this is undertaken through helping parents learn behaviour- management principles grounded in social-learning theory. Key elements include; Promoting play and a positive relationship, praise and rewards for sociable behaviour, clear rules and clear commands, consistent and calm consequences for unwanted behaviour.
In multisystemic therapy the young person’s and family’s needs are assessed in their own context at home and in related systems such as at school and with peers. Following the assessment, proven methods of intervention are used to address difficulties and promote strengths.
Family factors that should be considered in assessment and treatment
Conduct disorders present a significant public health problem for the individual and economy. By building up an evidence base on what influences increases vulnerability, what maintains difficulties, and which risk factors are associated with especially poor outcomes, this can help ensure that assessment identifies potentially modifiable factors are tackled in prevention and treatment. These are often categorised in terms of child, family and environmental.
As previously stated this essay will focus predominantly of family risk factors, however it is recognised that the development of conduct disorders is complex, and often are a result of a combination of biopsychosocial factors, with bidirectional influences, therefore family factors will be considered in the social context in which they exist. Additionally, it is necessary to be tentative when considering risk factors, as in the literature it is unclear whether some factors have causal effects or are merely markers of other risk mechanisms (Murray & Farrington, 2010).
Family factors can be considered in the three following areas; contextual family factors (Single, divorced and teenage parenting, socioeconomic status, culture), stressors (conflict, abuse, violence, parental anti-social behaviour, mental health and alcohol abuse) and parenting factors (style, warmth, supervision, monitoring and attachment).
Contextual family factors
Research has suggested that children raised in single-parent families, those with martial disruption or with teenage mothers are more likely to display behavioural problems such as aggression (Pearson, et al., 1994 ; Vaden – Kiernan et al., 1995; Nagin et al., 1997 ; Spieker et al., 1999 ). However, these results may be better explained by single and teen parents being more likely to experience high levels of financial and other stresses (Ali & Avison, 1997 ), which may drain emotional resources and compromise their ability to effectively parent (Grant et al., 2000 ; Hilton & Desrochers, 2000 ).
The importance of socioeconomic status (SES) of families in the development of CDs is supported by Barry et al., (2005) who found that children from families with lower incomes experience more disruptive behaviour problems. Furthermore in longitudinal research, it has been found that children in families in poverty had faster increases in antisocial behaviour (Macmillan et al., 2004 ).
However, research is inconclusive as lower SES is closely linked to other risk factors. A way of attempting to assess the role of SES in isolation of potentially confounding variables was a natural experiment by Costello et al. (2003). They found that when a casino opened in the midst of an ongoing longitudinal study, the income of the families increased and their children ’ s behaviour problems decreased. Most notably, the effect of enhanced income on children ’ s behaviour was mediated by improvements in parent – child relationships.
There are cultural/ethnic differences in prevalence for CDs, black boys aged 11-15 had a prevalence of 17.8% CDs, which is markedly higher than 2.3% for boys who were classified as Indian, and 8.6% for those who are white. These findings have also been supported in young people’s self-reports of antisocial behaviours as well as crime victim survey reports of perpetrators’ ethnicity (Goodman, Patel, & Leon, 2010).This could be explained by children’s cultural experiences leading them to develop social schemas that guide their behaviour (Lochman e t a l., 2008e ), and to develop forms of ethnic identity that can directly affect their aggressive behaviour (Holmes & Lochman, 2009).
Therefore, when providing treatments for families with CD culture should be considered. Lochman et al. (2000) noted that the effects of a cognitive-behavioural intervention such as the Anger Coping programme could be limited by certain cultural constraints. Within African-American, low-income populations, children’s abilities to accept and use non-aggressive strategies to solve problems may be limited by their parents’ modelling of physical aggression or by their parents’ direct advice to retaliate when confronted by certain types of threatening situation. These parental responses can often be the result of the parents’ desire to protect their children within a threatening, violent environment in a low-income community. Intervention literature indicates that one of the greatest difficulties with interventions for children with disruptive behaviour problems is that the children’s improved changes in behaviour tend to erode over time (e.g. McMahon & Wells, 1998). This is partly because the children remain in the same peer, family and neighbourhood settings following intervention, and these may have contributed to or maintained the child’s baseline level of problems. Thus, gains are not positively reinforced, and others, such as teachers, still expect that the perpetrator of the formerly aggressive behaviour will continue to behave in antisocial ways. In light of this a multimodal intervention such as MST may be most beneficial for those in certain cultures and environments, so wider factors can be addressed.
Engagement should be prioritised when working therapeutically with contextual family factors because dropout from treatment is high, at around 30 to 40% (ref). Practical measures such as assisting with transport, providing childcare, and holding sessions in the evening or at other times to suit the family will help those with limited resources attend. However, due to limited NHS funding this may not be possible, although Tighe et al., (2012) found that in a multisystemic therapy study, factors that could increase engagement were families reported trusting the therapist, feeling ‘heard and understood’, and a non-blaming approach, in which the therapist was ‘working together with me as opposed to against me’, therefore rapport building and empathy should be prioritised in assessments for CD.
In terms of treatment, group parent training is recommended (NICE), however it is important to note that Friars and Mellor (2009) showed that parents who reported a higher level of stress in their own lives were most likely to drop out from group-based parenting interventions. The majority of the drop-outs tend to be younger, single mothers who report finding the group context difficult, and find it hard to put the suggested parenting strategies in place, therefore offering individual treatment may be more beneficial in these cases.
Alternative risk factors relating to the onset and maintenance of CDs are stressors in families such as; conflict, violence, abuse and parental mental health difficulties and anti-social behaviour. Due to the distressing impact of these on children, it is important to assess for these, and consider them when deciding on the most suitable treatment.
Marshall and Watt (1999) found that when there is persistent conflict in families in which the parents do not separate, there are high levels of child behaviour problems and poor self-esteem in children. They also found that conflict involving physical aggression is more upsetting to children than other forms of marital conflict. Children exposed to marital violence may imitate this in their relationships with others and display violent behaviour towards family, peers and teachers. Carr (1999) goes on to suggest that where children are exposed to negative emotions, their safety and security may be threatened and therefore they may express anger towards their parents.
The amount of marital aggression a child witnesses is inversely proportional
to that child ’ s adjustment (Grych et al., 2000 ), and has moderate effects on
children ’ s behavioural disturbances according to meta – analyses. Significantly, both boys and girls from homes in which marital conflict is high are especially vulnerable to externalizing problems such as aggression and CDs even after controlling for age and family socioeconomic status (Dadds & Powell, 1992 ).
When this violence extends to the child through abusive and injurious parenting practices this can be a very influential risk factor for conduct disorders (Luntz & Widom, 1994). Physically maltreated children were found to be commonly aggressive, non-compliant and would act out. Sexually abused children had a variety of difficulties, including aggression and withdrawal (Erickson et al, 1989). Using a sample of over 1000 British 5 – year – old twins, Jaffee et al. (2004a) found that physical maltreatment predicted new and future antisocial outcomes in the children, in a direct dose – response manner, and that these effects remained even when controlled for the parents ’ histories of antisocial behaviour and for any genetic transmission of risks.
The presence of antisocial behaviour in parents is a major risk factor for children’ s antisocial behaviour (Farrington, 2005 ) and has specifically been associated with life – course – persistent (or early – onset) conduct problems in males (Odgers et al., 2007a ).
It has been found that fewer than 10% of families in a community contribute more than half of the community’ s criminal offences (Farrington et al., 2001 ). The family influence can occurs because children model and can be directly reinforced by family members for criminal behaviour. Findings across countries have been mixed about whether parent incarceration is an additional risk predictor above and beyond parental criminality in the prediction of children’ s delinquency (Murray et al., 2007 ).
Offord et al (1989), in their longitudinal study found that mothers with psychological distress, major depression or alcohol problems were more than twice as likely to have children with externalising problems directed at others. Research has indicated a clear relationship between maternal depression and disruptive behaviour problems in children (Klein et al., 1997a ) Although maternal depression contributes to child aggression over time, bidirectional effects are apparent, as evidenced by findings that a difficult infant temperament elicits a higher risk of depression in mothers (Murray et al., 1996 ). Barry et al. ( 2005 ) found that in a sample of families with 215 preadolescents, both maternal depression and maternal anxiety/somatization predicted attention problems and aggressive behaviour in their children, even after controlling for the other environmental factors. The relationship between maternal distress and children ’ s disruptive behaviours was notably found to be evident over and above the influence of socioeconomic status and stress that families experienced.
Research has shown that parental substance abuse is also a risk factor associated with CD (e.g., Bucholz et al., 2010; Frick et al., 1992; Kazdin, 1997; Earls et al, 1988). However, Miller & Jang (1977) found that children of alcoholics tend to come from lower SES homes with other problems, including parental mental illness, criminal activity, more marital breakdowns and more welfare assistance. Parents involved in crime may provide deviant role models for children to imitate and substance misuse may compromise parents’ capacity to care for their children correctly (Carr, 1999).
In assessment for conduct disorders, it is necessary to ascertain if the above stressors are currently, or have been present, as these are likely to have had a significant impact on the trajectory of the CD in the child. When doing this sensitivity is essential, and it is important to obtain information from the parents and child separately. If parents are engaging in anti-social behaviour themselves they may be sensitive to criticism, and sensibly unwilling to discuss their challenges in front of their child. Additionally, it is necessary for the child to have an opportunity to voice their concerns in absence of their parent. It may also be beneficial to obtain information from the child’s school or other agencies involved. In these instances the approach is more likely to succeed if it is respectful of families points of view, mindful of potential mistrust, does not offer overly prescriptive solutions or directly criticise parenting style.
Parental mental health and anti-social behaviour has implications for treatment. For these families it may be particularly important to take preventative measures, due to the known intergenerational transmission. Results indicate that parents pass to the next generation a general vulnerability to the spectrum of externalizing disorders, this vulnerability appeared to be highly heritable, the estimate being 80% (Hicks et al., 2004). Additionally, Bohman (1996), in a Swedish adoption study, found that adoptees whose biological parents were not antisocial and were reared in low-risk families had a risk of adult criminality of 3%, and in the presence of a high-risk family it was 6%; among those with criminal biological parents raised in low-risk families the rate was 12%, and in the presence of both biological and environmental risk the rate was significantly higher at 40%. Thus structured manualised treatments may neglect the complexities of the families,. Therefore more flexible, formulation driven treatments would be recommended. Furthermore, interventions may need to go beyond skill development to address more distal factors which prevent change. For example, to assist with drug or alcohol abuse, depression or violent relationships, assistance in reducing monetary worries to reduce stress.
A further difficulty may be that if families are experiencing high levels of stressors, such as parental mental health difficulties or anti-social behaviour, they may not be inclined to seek support for their child’s CD. Further research is needed to assess the validity of this assumption, and if so how this could be overcome. In these cases it may be that school based interventions are offered.
Additionally, where parents are not coping or a damaging abusive relationship is detected, it may be necessary to liaise with the social services department to arrange further support, such as rest bite provision, in addition to working with the family more holistically.
Robust research often involving a direct observation of parent – child interactions in the home and laboratory settings over the past four decades have found an array of parenting processes linked to children ’ s aggression (e.g. Patterson et al., 1992 ; Shaw et al., 1994 ; Reid et al., 2002 ).
It is necessary when assessing and treating CDs to acknowledge that as deficient parenting practices can interact with children ’ s escalating oppositional behaviour to create coercive cycles of behaviour between parents and children, and thus serve as one of the important aetiological factors in developing and maintaining young children ’ s aggressive behaviours (Patterson et al., 1992). From this perspective, it seems plausible to believe that if one could change the parents’ behaviour, one could possible also change the child’s behaviour.
Attachment is being considered as a parenting factor due to the influence that this bond will have on the interactions and consequent parenting that will occur. According to the attachment model proposed by Bowlby (1969), parental responsiveness is conceptualised as critical to the development of self-regulation skills. Therefore, differences in caregiver sensitivity and the resultant bond between the parent and infant are important factors in later patterns of the child’s behaviour (Lyons-Ruth, 1996). Greenberg & Speltz (1988) found that children who had received insufficient caregiving will act more disruptively to obtain the attention of their parent. Shaw & Winslow (1997) examined infant attachment security and observed the responsiveness of caregivers, and found that the parent–infant relationship correlated with externalising behaviour at a later age.
Ambivalent and controlling attachment, using the Strange Situations Test, predicted changes in children ’ s disruptive behaviours (Moss et al., 2006 ). Insecure attachment can better predict conduct problems when higher – risk samples are examined (Van IJzendoorn et al., 1999 ; Moffitt & Scott, 2008 ). Separation and disruption of primary attachments through neglect or abuse may also prevent children from developing internal working models for secure attachments.
From the above research it is unclear which parental behaviours associated with an insecure attachment are most linked to development of CDs. Harsh punishment, lack of warmth and monitoring have all had research support indicating they are influential.
Weiss et al. (1992) found that ratings of the severity of parental discipline were positively correlated with teacher ratings of aggression and behaviour problems. However, once harsh parenting has contributed to the escalating cycle of aggressive behaviour in a child,
the later movement towards more severe conduct problems may be the result of continuity in the behaviour itself, rather than the effects of ongoing harsh parenting (Lochman, 2003 ). When considering the risks associated with harsh punishment, one should be cautious and note that this a subjective term, which is likely to vary across cultures and over time.
Conversely, parental warmth and monitoring can be protective factors, and low parental warmth/involvement can predict children ’ s oppositional behaviours (Stormshak et al., 2000). Maternal affection has been related to lower levels of youth antisocial behaviour (Brook et al., 1983 ), and positive parenting (positive reinforcement, acceptance, responsiveness, synchrony, approval, guidance) has been found to be negatively related to child behaviour problems (e.g. Smith et al., 2000 ). High levels of parental monitoring can insulate children from drug and alcohol use and a broad range of other antisocial behaviours (Snyder et al., 1986 ; Steinberg, 1987 ). Supportive parenting has also been found to buffer against some known risk factors of poor adjustment such as single parent households and low socioeconomic status (Pettit et al., 1997 ).
An extensive metanalysis by Pinquart (2017), collated data from 1,435 studies providing data on 1,053,288 participants to assess associations between parenting dimensions and styles with externalizing symptoms in children and adolescents. This paper found that parental warmth, behavioral control, autonomy granting, and an authoritative parenting style showed very small to small negative concurrent and longitudinal associations with externalizing problems. In contrast, harsh control, psychological control, authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful parenting were associated with higher levels of externalizing problems. The strongest associations were observed for harsh control and psychological control.
However, it found that modifiers that predict change in externalising behaviour were parental warmth, behavioral control, harsh control, psychological control, autonomy granting, authoritative, and permissive parenting, significantly many of these were bidirectional. Thus, In treatment and assessment for conduct disorders, the bidirectional relationship between parents ’ parenting practices and their children ’ s behaviours should be noted.
When considering treatments, it is recognised that therapeutic innovations are more likely to occur when theory is emphasized in treatment research (Jensen, 1999 ). Thus, interventions should be rooted in clear, well – articulated models for the development and maintenance of particular problems behaviours (Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 1992 ). As the above research indicates that parental factors have clear direct effects on children ’ s outcomes, those factors that are malleable, and are potentially able to be influenced by an intervention, should be considered as intervention targets (Lochman, 2007 ). Therefore, parenting practices such as control, which are key aspects of the model describing the development of conduct problems, should logically be addressed in interventions for CDs.
If from an assessment, it is thought that a diagnosis of CD is present, care should be taken in the way that this is communicated with the family. The clinician needs to be sensitive from the outset to information that parents may have gathered from the media where CDs may still be considered to be the result only of bad parenting, and may of assumed that negative outcomes such as delinquency and substance use disorders are to be considered as an inescapable future for their child. Thus, it is necessary to give accurate general information on our present knowledge on the aetiology and outcome of the CDs. Moreover, it may be advisable to pay attention to the strengths of the child and the family by assessing the protective factors.
Additionally, whilst parental factors are influential in the development of CDs, it is more important to focus on the child, family and other environmental factors that probably play a role in the maintenance of the disorder, as these will be the targets of intervention, than to focus on the factors that have probably played a role in the initiation of the CD. Thus, it should be clarified that an indication for behavioural parent training does not imply that inappropriate parenting actually did cause the onset of CD. A further barrier could be that some parents do not accept that the parents themselves should invest in treatment while the child is left out of treatment. To motivate parents, the distinction may be made between ordinary parenting that is ‘ good enough ’ for ‘ normal children ’ and the additional qualities of parenting that are needed for children with CDs. In response to concerns around engagement, a Parent Participation Enhancement Intervention has been developed and evaluated (Nock & Kazdin, 2005 ). It consists of three brief (5 – 15 – minute) additional interventions composed of motivational enhancement techniques to be included in the therapy sessions. It has been shown that parents who received this intervention had greater treatment motivation, attended more sessions and showed a greater adherence to treatment (Nock & Kazdin, 2005 ).
Overall, the evidence for the positive effect of parental intervention on children with potential CDs provides strong evidence for the important role of parenting in the onset of CDs. Nevertheless, it has been found that there is a significant proportion of children who do not respond to parent training, and that this works much better for younger children with less severe problems and more functional families. In adolescence, often parental influence diminishes and the individual is more influenced by peers and wider societal factors. This should be considered in treatment, and functional family therapy, multisystemic therapy and multidimensional treatment foster care (MTFC) therefore may be more appropriate than parent training for some.
It is apparent that family factors are very influential in the development and perpetuation of CDs. Additionally, it is clear that CDs are complex and pervasive, there are a number of risk factors, that can occur in combination and act as mediators to additional factors (Loeber & Dishion, 1983; Yoshikawa, 1994). Due to this, it is most beneficial to establish through assessment and formulation what factors are involved in the maintenance of CDs to allow these to be directly targeted in intervention. Also, it is necessary to be aware of what factors are particularly associated with poor outcomes, and have an understanding of the antecedents of serious antisocial behaviour, so early preventive interventions may be effective in modifying trajectories and thus interrupting the course towards chronic antisocial behaviour.
From critically considering risk factors it appears that low SES is an important factor in in the development and maintenance of CDs, due to it’s influence on numerous other factors such as likelihood of substance misuse. Conflict, abuse and parental mental health, however still appeared to be significant influences even after controlling for differences in SES. Pinquart’s (2017) meta-analysis provides insightful data on key parenting factors, due to the very large scale of the data. It highlighted that harsh control and neglectful parenting have the strongest longitudinal associations with higher levels of externalizing problems. Whilst warmth was found to have a small association, it was a significant modifier in predicting change to externalising behaviour.
A key difficulty in the assessment and treatment of CDs is that only a small percentage of those that could benefit from specialist help seek it, and even less manage to complete and benefit from therapy. Therefore, family factors that need to be considered to allow for engagement are mainly around how to assist families experiencing stressors such as conflict, or parents own mental health issues. Additionally, treatment may need to be flexible and address factors interfering with effective parenting, such as marital problems, depression and lack of adult social skills, as well as their children’s behaviour problems. Programmes may also combine parent training with other interventions such as child programmes based on social learning theory.
Given the high prevalence and cost of those with CD, and the lack of resources available in the NHS to provide evidence based treatments to all of those with CDs who need them there appears to be a need to think more innovatively about how treatments can be dispersed on a wider scale, for example some parent-training/education programmes can also be self-administered in the home, using printed training materials or audio-visual training tools such as videos. Additionally, to ensure maximum benefit child and social factors should be fully considered in addition to family factors, so there relative important in assessment and treatment can be ascertained.
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