Juvenile delinquency is a national concern. The family environment can have an impact on the development of delinquent behaviors among adolescents. The current research aims to decipher and describe the link between family-related factors and adolescent delinquency. Seven current, peer-reviewed, empirical researches that examined the effects the family can have on delinquency were reviewed following a database search on the topic. Poor parental monitoring and supervision, inadequate communication at home, experience with foster care and maltreatment and having a parent absent are strong correlates of juvenile delinquency.
Adolescents of mothers whose age at first childbearing was below 20 years were more likely to be arrested. Non-family related factors such as having a peer who was involved in delinquent behaviors as well as teacher and formal labeling also increased the risk of delinquency. Therefore, though family had a significant effect on delinquency other factors were just as important. Programs targeted at decreasing juvenile delinquency will need to address the issue from multiple angles, targeting most, if not all, of the areas that impact the development of delinquency.
Juvenile delinquency is a serious problem worldwide and has been increasing incrementally by as much as 30 percent since the 1990s (World Health Report, 2003). Reports indicate that the problem is of concern not only in the United States but also throughout the world, especially in Eastern European countries (World Health Report, 2003). Experts and researchers in the field, in an effort to understand the underlying factors that influence youth involvement in delinquent behaviors have sought to determine relationships between these behaviors and other variables.
Researchers are increasingly focusing on the family, and the possible familial factors that may influence juvenile delinquency (Robbins, Briones, Schwartz, Dillon and Mitrani, 2006). Aspects of family structure such as single parent families (Kirkus & Baer, 2003) or even grandparent-led families (Robbins, Briones, Schwartz, Dillon and Mitrani, 2006) are often felt to be risk-factors for delinquent behaviors. However the effects of family-related factors on delinquency is quite complex between a number of additional factors have to be considered when examining the issue.
These may include, but are not limited to, parent’s marital, economic and employment status, parental monitoring, parental attitudes to the child, their peers and their school, family involvement in delinquent behaviors and the relationship between children, parents and other family members (Fletcher, Steinberg & Williams-Wheeler, 2004). Furthermore it may be difficult to determine the individual contribution of each factor since it is almost impossible to isolate family characteristics.
The current paper examines some of the empirical researches that have looked into the various family factors and their relationship with delinquent behaviors. Literature Review The study reported by Paschall, Ringwalt and Flewelling (2003) examined the contribution of parenting techniques, having an absent father and associating with delinquent peers to the development of delinquent behaviors among African-American male adolescents. The study was longitudinal in nature, utilizing an audio-type questionnaire. Both the African-American male adolescents and their mothers were included in the survey.
A sample of 260 African-American adolescents aged between 12 and 16 years (mean 15. 6 years), residing in a southeastern city, were included in the study. This sample was not randomly selected. The mothers, or female filling the role of the mother, were also included in the study resulting in 203 such persons. Mothers qualified to be included based on the reports of the adolescents that these were primarily the persons with whom they lived or who were most like a mother to them. The independent variables examined in the study were parenting technique, father absence and association with delinquent peers.
The first variable was further broken down into four aspects, monitoring of son’s behavior, control over son’s behavior, communication with son and parent-adolescent relationship. For each of these factors the parents’ responses were scored using a predetermined formula with higher scores reflecting more positive parenting techniques. Father absence was based on the response given by adolescents as to whether or not they were living with their father or a father figure. Students indicating yes to this item were classified as from a father-present family and those indicating no as from father-absent families.
Adolescent association with delinquent peers was determined by asking adolescents to indicate how many of their friends had been involved in eight categories of delinquent behaviors within the past six months. Responses were scored on a range of 0 to 4 with higher scores indicating greater association with delinquent peers. The dependent variable was adolescent delinquent behavior. This was measured by asking the adolescent participants to indicate if and/or when they had been involved in any of 12 delinquent behaviors.
Responses were scored either 0 or 1 to indicate whether behaviors were carried out within the past year and then all behaviors were summed. Higher scores meant more delinquent behaviors within the past year. Mothers and sons were separately interviewed twice, in 1996 and 1997, during the study period by asking them to choose responses after listening to pre-recorded questions on audiocassettes. The study found that high levels of parental monitoring and perceived control as well were significantly correlated with lower levels of delinquent behaviors.
Association with delinquent friends also had a positive correlation with delinquent behaviors but father absence shown no significant correlation. These results substantiate the position that parents’ role is important in limiting delinquent behaviors and may even have a greater effect than peer associations. The findings did not support the researchers’ hypothesis that adolescents from father absent homes were more prone to delinquent behaviors. The primary limitation of the study is its very small sample size. Only 260 adolescent males and 203 mothers were interviewed.
While this is due to attrition over the years of the study the results are still not easily generalizable to a larger population. Additionally the data was based on self-reports from both parents and adolescents therefore there is no way to verify the accuracy of the data. Another study reported by Barnes, Hoffman, Welte, Farrell and Dintcheff (2006) compared the effects of parental monitoring and family support and peer deviance on adolescent participation in delinquent behaviors. The research was longitudinal and took place over a six-year period.
Participants located in western New York were randomly selected using computer-assisted digital dialing procedures of families with at least one adolescent between 13 and 16 years at the start of the study. 292 females and 214 males and their parents were followed through the six study years. The independent variables were parental alcohol abuse as measured by parental reports of at least one alcohol related problem in the preceding year or daily consumption of more than two or three drinks daily for mother and father respectively.
Family support, which includes maternal nurturance, communication with mother and family cohesion, was measured based on responses to questionnaire items that were coded and scored on a scale of 1 to 5. Higher composite scores meant greater levels of family support. Parental monitoring was similarly assessed and responses scored on a scale of 0 to 4 with a higher total score indicating greater parental monitoring. Peer deviance was measured based on respondents’ indication of their peer’s frequency of participation in a range of minor and major delinquent acts within the past year.
Responses were scored on a scale of 0 to 3 based on frequency with a higher score representing peer’s more frequent involvement in these activities. The dependent variables were alcohol abuse, drug use, and delinquency. The first variable was assessed as the amount of times drunk and frequency of drinking over five drinks at once over the past year as well as the number of ounces drank daily. Drug abuse use was measured by calculating the amount of time adolescents used any of seven illicit drugs.
Delinquency was determined by adolescent reports on their frequency of involvement in any of 18 delinquent behaviors. Data was gathered using interviews of respondents and their parents, conducted at one-year intervals for six years. Family support had no effect on delinquency, parental monitoring was negatively correlated with alcohol abuse, drug use and delinquency while these variables were positively correlated with peer deviance. However parental monitoring had a greater effect than peer deviance.
These results are encouraging suggesting that though associating with peers involved in delinquent behaviors may increase the likelihood of involvement in similar behaviors, that the influence of parents can be much stronger. The findings fit well into and support the family socialization theory which postulates that parental influences supersede peer influences. The study was limited in that, apart from African Americans, there was not adequate ethnic representation with only five Hispanics, four Asian and one American Indian.
Additionally the sample is small and only representative of a single geographic area, western New York State. Pogarsky, Lizotte and Thornberry (2003) report on a study which attempted to discover the relationship between the age of the mother when she gave birth to her first child and the development of juvenile delinquent behaviors in her children. The study utilized data gathered in the broader longitudinal, quantitative Rochester Youth Development Study. That study utilized a community based sampling method.
1000 adolescent registered in Rochester, New York public schools in grades seven and eight in the academic years 1987 and 1988 were selected along with their primary caretakers. For inclusion in the current study participants had to have followed through with the study into late adolescence and their primary caregiver was their birth mother. The independent variables examined were mother’s age at childbearing, family structure, parenting and financial adversity. All data was gathered in interviews.
Mother’s age at first childbearing was given by mothers, family structure was measured as whether the child resided with both biological parents in at least one of the interviews, determining who was the absent parent, and assessing changes in family structure by calculating number of changes in primary residence and family size was determined by calculating the number of siblings residing in the same house. Parenting was measured on three scales, parental supervision, consistency of discipline and positive parenting.
The first is assessed by measuring the extent to which parents are aware of their child’s whereabouts, friends and activities. Consistency of discipline was the extent to which disciplining was proportionate or consistent and positive parenting was measured as the degree to which parents reward positive behavior. These variables were measured on a 1-4 point Likert scale, values summed and then reverse coded. Higher values represented poorer parenting. Financial adversity was assessed by using the employment status of the breadwinner, and whether or not the family was on public assistance.
The dependent variables were general and violent delinquency, and arrests. Delinquency was the number of times the child committed any of 31 delinquent acts or other serious act between interviews, values were totaled with higher values representing greater involvement in these activities. Number of arrests was gathered from police database records and a cumulative value for number of arrests was calculated. Adolescents and their primary caretakers were interviewed at six-month intervals between 1988 and 1992, and yearly between 1994 -1997 with a two-year lapse between both frequencies.
Children from mothers having their first child at a younger age (> 20 years) were more likely to be involved in general and violent delinquent behaviors and had more arrests. This effect was more pronounced for White and Hispanic males. The findings support developmental theory which postulates that financial adversity, family structure and parenting behaviors have the greatest influence on delinquent outcomes. The limitations of the study are that the findings may not be generalizable because a limited geographical location was selected.
Further the research was qualitative and thus unable to truly determine the ways in which early childbearing affected delinquent outcomes. The study could only identify, not predict or explain the relationship between these variables. Alltucker, Bullis, Close and Yovanoff (2006) examined the relationship between “foster care experience, family criminality, special education disability, and socioeconomic status” (p. 482) and the age at which youths become involved in delinquent behaviors.
This study also utilized data gathered in a broader longitudinal, quantitative study – the Transition Research on Adjudicated Youth in Community Settings study. That study utilized a community based, non-probability, convenience sampling method. 1000 adolescent registered in Rochester, New York public schools in grades seven and eight in the academic years 1987 and 1988 were surveyed along with their primary caretakers. Adolescents were recruited at secure juvenile correctional facilities and work camps with 531 (93% males and 7% females; 80% White, 20% minority) of the larger study sampled in the current report.
The independent variables were foster care experience, familial felony, special education and socioeconomic (SES). Data was gathered from the institutional records of participants and data provided by the department of education, from quantitative instruments, as well as via the use of interviews. The first three variables were classified as yes or no. A SES form was also used to determine SES based on the parent’s occupation, education, sex and marital status. Students were classified into one of five SES categories. The dependent variable was early start of juvenile delinquent behavior.
Adolescents who had their first adjudication at or before age fourteen were categorized as early starters. Data was gathered at each of the correctional facilities twice per month among juveniles who were expected to be released within the upcoming two months. At the work camps data was gathered continuously so as to ensure adequate participants as these facilities were less regularly used. Survey recruits were gathered between 1993 and 1998. Some interviews with parents were conducted over the phone but most were done at the facilities.
Having a family member who was convicted of a felony and having any experience of foster care were significant predictors of early involvement in juvenile delinquency. Foster care experience increased the risk four times while familial felony increased the risk by two. Socioeconomic status and being in special education did not show any significant relationship with early start of juvenile delinquency. These results show that the two direct family-related factors were the greatest predictors of early involvement substantiating previous research support the important influence of the home and home environment.
One of the major limitations of this study, like many of the studies discussed previously in this paper, is the small and geographically restricted sample. Similarly, while these quantitative surveys can distinguish a connection between familial factors and juvenile delinquency, they are unable to predict any causal relationship. Furthermore there is a very low representation of minority populations in this study and the majority of participants are also male. It is therefore difficult to generalize the results to other populations throughout the United States or even in the world as this type of sample is not truly representative.
Cheng (2004) explored the effect of family stability and other familial and parental factors, including parenting style, supervision and demographic variables, on delinquent behavior. The research also employed secondary data from the larger National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) done among adolescents throughout the United States which collected data between 1979 and 1998. The study by Tyrone Cheng sampled adolescents aged 16 to 18 who had provided information on prior convictions during interviews in 1994 and 1996.
A cross-referencing of the parents of these sampled adolescents who were included in the parent sample was done but included only White, African-American or Hispanics. The resulting population for the study was 823 adolescents and parent pairs. The independent variables were (i) family stability as indicated by number of years spent in any of four types of family settings, (ii) parenting style and (iii) supervision were based on mother’s reports of frequency of rewarding, withholding privileges, requiring chores and limiting TV and friends, and (iv) demographic variables determined by poverty status and residence.
The dependent variable was delinquency based on the child’s previous conviction of any delinquent act, as indicated by reports from parents. The NLSY database was queried for the parents and adolescents that matched the sample criteria. The results indicate that family stability and parental supervision lowered adolescent’s risk of involvement in delinquent activities despite confounding demographic variables. Similarly having a young or white mother and mother’s poverty status were associated with greater risk for delinquent behavior.
This study, like the others examined in this paper, utilized quantitative methodology and the weakness of this method has been highlighted previously. The most significant weakness of this research is that the data was based solely on self-reports of either adolescents or their parents. There were no controls made for potential reporting bias and thus the data gathered in this research cannot truly be trusted. Furthermore parents and adolescents may either over or underestimate delinquent behavior and may not give a true report of previous delinquent involvement.
The next research by Davalos, Chavez and Daviola (2005) delved into the issue of parental involvement in their child’s education as well as family communication and the potential effect they have on the development of delinquent behaviors in adolescents. The study was a retrospective, cross-sectional, controlled study. Drop-outs from three school districts in southwestern United States were sampled. Corresponding adolescents still enrolled in schools from which the drop-outs came were matched based on gender, ethnicity and grade. A total of 300 Mexican-Americans (47.
6% females; 55% drop-outs) and 276 White non-Latinos (59. 4% females; 52. 5% drop-outs) were surveyed. The dependent variable was delinquent behaviors determined by reported incidences of conviction, vandalism and theft. The independent variables were parental school support as measured by parents’ attending school events and interest in child’s school, family communication as measured by Likert-Scale items on the frequency and depth of communication within the family including freeness to communicate, be involved in decision-making and parents interest in child.
Staff at each of the schools regularly provided a list of drop-outs from school. Drop-outs were those students who were in grades 7 through 12 and who had been absent from school for greater than a month without any contact with the school. A random sample of drop-outs from each month’s list was selected and control group students were matched to those randomized. All prospective participants were contacted along with their parents. Drop-outs reported more incidences of delinquent behaviors. This is in support of general strain theory which advocates that persons who fail in school turn to delinquent behaviors to compensate.
Similarly lack of communication at home and poor parental school support were closely linked with higher levels of delinquency. There were no statistically significant differences in the rate of parental support or family communication between Latinos and Whites and thus there was not much variation in the delinquent behaviors of both groups. Again the major limitation of this study is its dependence on self-reports. Adolescents and their parents may not be the best placed to report on involvement in delinquent behaviors.
Using school personnel and other appropriate community individuals would render a truer picture of the delinquent behaviors of adolescents. Additionally reports on parental communication and support are based on adolescent reports only but this information is best gained from school personnel who interact with these parents or who would experience their lack of involvement in their child’s education. None of the previous studies examined in this paper have attempted to determine any underlying family factors that could have a direct causal effect on delinquent behaviors.
The final study by Stouthamer-Loeber, Wei, Homish and Loeber (2002) examines a very critical issue that is important in understanding at least some juvenile delinquent behaviors. The researchers in that study attempted to discover if boys who are ill-treated at home are at a greater risk of getting persistently involved in serious juvenile misbehaviors. Additionally they sought to find out the similarities in the demographic characteristics of juvenile delinquents and maltreated juveniles and if maltreatment is a useful variable to be considered when looking at family related factors and their effects on delinquent behaviors.
The study was longitudinal and employed a control group with interviews and follow-up between 1987 and 1993. This study was also a miniature of the larger longitudinal Pittsburgh Youth Study (PYS). Only males were sampled in this study. Based on the data supplied by the PYS study a sample of high-risk boys who had already displayed delinquent behavior at the first interview was selected. An equivalent number of boys in the rest of the sample was randomly selected from the follow-up participants resulting in 500 juveniles being sampled with a participation rate of 93.
7 percent. The independent variables were maltreatment, and family factors. Maltreatment data was gathered from official records which showed any referral of participants’ family members to the office of the Children and Youth Services (CYS) at any point during the child’s life up to the point of data gathering. Forms of maltreatment included any abuse or neglected that necessitated the intervention of the CYS. Family factors were further broken down into family interaction, caregiver characteristics and demographic variables.
The first included supervision and communication, the second included familial criminality, attitude and psychological problems and the third included parent’s education, employment status, teenage motherhood and living with either one/other or both parents. Persistent serious delinquency was the dependent variable. This was measured based on the child’s involvement in any of a list of serious delinquent acts including auto theft, rape, armed robbery, breaking and entering, auto theft or drug dealing. The rate of maltreatment among the boys sampled was high with 18.
7 percent shown as being maltreated in the past. Furthermore close to 50 percent of maltreated boys were categorized as persistent serious offenders but less than 20 percent of the control group was juvenile delinquents. Furthermore the maltreated group had an early onset of delinquent behaviors. Evidently maltreated boys are at a greater risk of involvement in serious delinquent behaviors than boys who have no reported instances of maltreatment. However the effect of maltreated also has to be understood in the context of family factors.
It appears that poor family factors were more severe within this group suggesting that maltreatment cannot be isolated from family factors in understanding the effect on delinquent behaviors. One of the greatest limitations of the study was the inconsistency of the periods for which data was gathered. Maltreatment was assessed retrospectively from birth while delinquent behaviors were only assessed between ages 8 and 13. This could have resulted in either an over-specification of maltreatment or an under-representation of delinquent behaviors.
Furthermore this could also mean that the groups are not discreet with the possibility that boys who displayed delinquent behaviors before age 8 were not included in the control group. Conclusion and Discussion The issue of juvenile delinquency is indeed a troubling one since delinquent behaviors manifested during this age can lead to the development and maintenance of more serious behaviors into adulthood. Various family characteristics can interact to influence delinquent behaviors in adolescents.
The research discussed above undoubtedly indicates that there is indeed a significant relationship between family-related factors and juvenile delinquency. Evidence reveals that adolescents from families where the mother begins childbearing early, where one or more parents are absent, where there is poor communication at home, where parents show minimal interest and involvement in their child’s education, exercise poor parental supervision and control, and who have experienced foster care and maltreatment are at a greater risk of involvement in delinquent behaviors.
However these results must be very carefully interpreted since the researches had various structural weaknesses. Most of the researches employed very small, restricted samples, focusing often on a single geographical area. Some studies ignored minority populations or used questionable sampling techniques that meant data was not truly representative of the population making results difficult to generalize.
Additionally the use of quantitative methodologies is unable to predict a causal relationship between these several family variables and delinquency especially given than non-family factors such as associations with delinquent peers may also have an effect on the development of these behaviors. Certainly there is evidence that family has an effect on delinquency but the true nature of this relationship is yet to be fully established. References Alltucker, K. W. , Bullis, M. , Close, D. , & Yovanoff, P. (2006).
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