Recent research has important implications for preventing delinquency. Two long-term studies revealed that significant difference exist between minor delinquency, which appears to be a normal form of experimentation by adolescents, and serious delinquent acts that can lead to arrest and conviction.
For the purpose of these studies, minor delinquency included such acts as taking a few dollars, getting angry and breaking things, starting a fist fight, or damaging property. Serious delinquency consists of taking part in gang fights, using force to get money or expensive things, breaking into a house or store, taking a car for a ride or stealing something worth more than $50.
Family factors associated with delinquency
One study sought to identify family and parenting factors during early adolescence that predict serious delinquency in young adulthood. One hundred and thirty-two white, lower-middle-class families were studied over a period of six years. Karla Klein, Rex Forehand, Lisa Armistead, and Patricia Long evaluated families when students were in middle school (aged 11-14) and again six years later.
Good communication and problem-solving skills in mothers were shown to reduce the influence of negative family variables and effectively lower the rate of serious delinquency.
Positive maternal parenting skills were evaluated in self-report measures and through observations. Family variables including marital conflict that occurs in front of the child, single-parent families, and maternal depression were also measured. Criminal records and self-report measures of delinquency were used as follow-up six years later.
Results of this study show that maternal communication and problem solving skills and family variables during early adolescence both affect and predict severe delinquent behavior in early adulthood. However, neither predicted minor delinquent acts. The highest crime rates were found in young adults from families with both poor communication and problem-solving skills and family stress factors such as divorce, maternal depression or parental conflict.
But mothers with good communication and problem-solving skills could clearly counter the effect of these other negative variables on their child.
These results indicate that parent training in problem solving and communication skills could be an important focus for families of young adolescents who are experiencing the stress of divorce, parental conflict or depression. These researchers caution, however, against generalizing these findings from lower-middle-class white families to other populations.
Role of family attachment
A second study examined the relationship between family variables, delinquency and substance abuse in a diverse population in Dade County, Florida. In this study a significant, direct relationship was found between family attachment and each of the delinquent behaviors.
Previous research shows that delinquency is 10 to 15 percent higher in single-parent homes, but research also indicates that a strong attachment between parent and child is critical to preventing delinquent adolescent behavior. Family variables including instability, disorganization and lack of cohesiveness are risk factors for adolescent substance abuse.
To analyze these variables and their effect of adolescent behavior, Jan Sokol-Katz, University of Miami; Roger Dunham, University of Kentucky; and Rick Zimmerman, University of Miami, conducted a long-term study of adolescent development and substance abuse with a population that was 45 percent Hispanic, 28 percent African-American and 27 percent non-Hispanic white. These researchers measured the strength of family attachment and belief in the law.
Family attachment was measured by the statements:
- Family members respect one another.
- We share similar values and beliefs.
- Things work out well for us as a family.
- We really do trust and confide in each other.
- Family members feel loyal to the family.
- We are proud of our family.
- We can express our feelings with our family.
Belief in the law was measured by such statements as:
- It is okay to sneak into a movie or ball game without paying.
- It is okay to steal a bike if you can do it without getting caught.
- It is important to pay for all things taken from a store.
- It is important to try to follow rules and obey the law.
Adolescents in this study were questioned about both minor and serious delinquent acts and drug use. Family structure (single-parent versus two-parent families) had only an indirect effect on serious delinquency and drug use. Having two parents in the home appears to make it easier and more likely to control delinquency. And a strong attachment between parent and child seems to have a significant effect on belief in the law, which in turn directly reduces delinquent behavior.
Significant differences were found in regard to gender and race in this study. Parents impose greater control on girls than boys, and the rate of serious delinquency is much higher for boys. And although race was not a significant factor in delinquency, it was in substance abuse.
White adolescents report significantly more alcohol, cigarette and drug use than do African-American adolescents.
In summary, these studies point to the important impact of parental skills and behaviors. Parents have a tremendous influence on their teenagers’ behavior. Family risk factors such as divorce are not as strong an influence as are parenting skills and the attachment parents are able to maintain with their child.
These researchers speculate that high levels of communication and problem-solving may help to maintain positive relations between parents and adolescents.
This research indicates that minor delinquency may be a normal part of adolescent experimentation and is not strongly related to serious delinquency. This is important and points to the need to study different levels of delinquency separately.
These results indicate that prevention programs could be more effective if they trained parents in communication and problem-solving skills before their children entered high school. In particular, families with risk factors should be targeted for such programs, since these skills can mediate negative family factors to reduce serious delinquency in later adolescence.
“Delinquency During the Transition to Early Adulthood: Family Spring 1997, Volume 32 Number 125 pp. 61-80.
Published in ERN September/October 1997 Volume 10 Number 4