Juvenile Delinquency and Family Structure


Anika Doggett

Elon University



This article attempts to explain the effect of family structure on juvenile delinquency. The least amount of communication and structure the family provides, the more likely the child will engage in delinquent activities.  Data for this research were collected from a high school in a predominantly low-income area of the south.  Research was conducted through the use of surveys.  Findings suggest that family structure does indeed both negatively and positively play a role in the production of juvenile delinquency. 
                                                                                    Juvenile Delinquency and Family Structure

Obviously something is going on in today’s society if more and more children are committing delinquent crimes.  Sometimes a researcher has to get to what he or she thinks is the root of the problem to figure out what spawns a certain issue.  What provokes a child to become delinquent and what makes the child gravitate so easily towards this lifestyle?  This study explores how family life influences juvenile delinquency. Juveniles are more likely to become juvenile delinquents if there is little structure provided for them in their families.  

Although there are several influential variables, there are three main categories on which I will be focusing that encompass all of these variables.  These categories are family functioning, impact of family disruption, and two-parent versus single parent households.  All of these aspects of family are very crucial to the upbringing of a child and could ultimately lead to delinquent behaviors if the family is not functioning “properly.” Properly is defined as a two parent, violence free, and openly communicating household.

According to Wright and Wright (1994) the family is the foundation of human society.  Children who are rejected by their parents, who grow up in homes with considerable conflict, or who are inadequately supervised are at the greatest risk of becoming delinquent.  Immarigeon (1996) says it best when he states that justice can be better served and young people steered on the right path by involving families in juvenile crime cases.   If anything would play a large part in delinquency it would be a family.  Understanding how the family and how the juvenile within the family works gets to the core of delinquency. 

Families are one of the strongest socializing forces in life.  They teach children to control unacceptable behavior, to delay gratification, and to respect the rights of others.  Conversely, families can teach children aggressive, antisocial, and violent behavior (Wright & Wright 1994).  This statement alone could easily explain how the juvenile may end up becoming a delinquent.  Wright and Wright (1994) suggest positive parenting practices during the early years and later in adolescence appear to act as buffers preventing delinquent behavior and assisting adolescents involved in such behavior to desist from delinquency. 

Adolescence is a time of expanding vulnerabilities and opportunities that accompany the widening social and geographic exposure to life beyond school or family, but it starts with the family.  Research indicates that various exposures to violence are important sources of early adolescent role exits, which means that not only can a juvenile witness violence within the family but on the outside as well (Hagan & Foster 2001).  If violence encompasses all emotionally environmental aspects of the juvenile’s life, he or she is more likely to engage in delinquent activities. 

A substantial number of children engage in delinquency.  Antisocial and/or aggressive behaviors may begin as early as preschool or in the first few grades of elementary school.  Such childhood misconduct tends to be resistant to change; for example, the parents disciplining more harshly, often predicts continuing problems during adolescence, as well as adult criminality (Prochnow & DeFronzo 1997).

In the realm of family functioning there is a theory known as the coercion theory, which suggests that family environment influences an adolescent’s interpersonal style, which in turn influences peer group selection (Cashwell & Vacc 1996).  Peers with a more coercive interpersonal style tend to become involved with each other, and this relationship is assumed to increase the likelihood of being involved in delinquent behavior.  Thus understanding the nature of relationships within the family, to include family adaptability, cohesion, and satisfaction, provides more information for understanding youth (Cashwell & Vacc 1996).  The cohesiveness of the family successfully predicted the frequency of delinquent acts for non-traditional families (Matherne & Thomas 2001).  Family behaviors, particularly parental monitoring and disciplining, seem to influence association with deviant peers throughout the adolescent period (Cashwell & Vacc 1994).  Among  social circumstances which have a hand in determining the future of the individual it is enough for our present purpose to recognize that family is central (Wright & Wright 1994).

Referring back to the issue of monitoring, a lack of monitoring is reflected in the parent often not knowing where the child is, whom the child is with, what the child is doing or when the child will be home.  Monitoring becomes increasingly important as children move into adolescence and spend less time under the direct supervision of parents or other adults and more time with peers.  Previous research found that coercive parenting and lack of parental monitoring contributes not only directly to boys’ antisocial behaviors, but also indirectly as seen in the contribution to their increased opportunity to associate with deviant peers, which is predictive of higher levels of delinquent acts (Kim, et al. 1999).

Communication also plays a big role in how the family functions.  Clark and Shields (1997) state that the importance of positive communication for optimal family functioning has major implications for delinquent behavior.  They also discovered that communication is indeed related to the commission of delinquent behavior and differences are shown within categories of age, sex, and family marital status.

Gorman-Smith and Tolan (1998) found that parental conflict and parental aggressiveness predicted violent offending; whereas, lack of maternal affection and paternal criminality predicted involvement in property crimes.  Familial characteristics suggesting familial antisocial behavior or values such as family history of criminal behavior, harsh parental discipline, and family conflict have been among the most consistently linked.   In another study conducted by Gorman-Smith and her colleagues, data show that children are more likely to resort to violence if there is violence within relationships that they may share with their family (Gorman-Smith, et al. 2001)

For family disruption and delinquency, the composition of families is one aspect of family life that is consistently associated with delinquency.  Children who live in homes with only one parent or in which marital relationships have been disrupted by divorce or separation are more likely to display a range of behavioral problems including delinquency, than children who are from two parent families (Thornberry, et al. 1999).  Children who witness marital discord are at greater risk of becoming delinquents.  Previous research has demonstrated associations between exposure to parental divorce and marital discord while growing up and children’s psychological distress in adulthood (Amato & Sobolewski 2001).  Social learning theory argues that aggressive behavior is learned; as parents display aggressive behavior, children learn to imitate it as an acceptable means of achieving goals (Wright & Wright 1994). 

Juby and Farrington (2001) claim that there are three major classes that explain the relationship between disrupted families and delinquency; trauma theories, life course theories, and selection theories.  The trauma theories suggest that the loss of a parent has a damaging effect on children, most commonly because of the effect on attachment to the parent.  Life course theories focus on separation as a long drawn out process rather than a discrete event, and on the effects of multiple stressors typically associated with separation.  Selections theories argue that disrupted families are associated with delinquency because of pre-existing differences in family income or child rearing methods, for example (Juby & Farrington 2001).

The third major area within juvenile delinquency and families is single parent households versus two parent households.  Klein and Forehand (1997) suggest that the prediction of juvenile delinquency in early childhood depends on the type of maternal parenting skills that are imposed upon the child during early adolescence.  Muehlenberg (2002) poses the question of how do children from single parent family homes fare educationally compared to children from intact two parent families?

A number of studies have been undertaken which show a very real connection between delinquent and /or criminal behavior, and single parent families. Wright and Wright’s (1994) research shows that single parent families, and in particular mother-only families, produce more delinquent children than two parent families.  Indeed the very absence of intact families makes gang membership more appealing (Muehlenberg 2002).

Sometimes the focus is taken off the mother and shifted towards the father.  The lack of emphasis on the role of fathering in childhood conduct problems is especially unfortunate given that there are several reasons why fathers can be expected to be particularly significant in the initiation and persistence of offspring offending.  For example, fathers are particularly likely to be involved with sons who are at higher risk than daughters of delinquent behavior (Flouri & Buchannan 2002).   Popenoe (1997) states that fatherlessness is a major force behind many disturbing US social problems.  The institution of marriage acts as culture’s chief vehicle to bind men to their children.  The absence of fathers from children’s lives is one of the most important causes related to children’s well being such as increasing rates of juvenile crime, depression and eating disorders, teen suicide, and substance abuse.  Two parent households provide increased supervision and surveillance of property, while single parenthood increases likelihood of delinquency and victimization simply by the fact that there is one less person to supervise adolescent behavior (Wright & Wright 1994).

Which one of these three major factors contributes to juvenile delinquency the most? They all seem to play a very big role in the life of the child.  Family is very important in creating a law-abiding child.  Separating the influence of these three main categories is a challenge.




This research utilizes two methodological designs, surveys and interviews. A group of delinquents between ages of 14-19 were asked to complete a questionnaire.  This group of students were chosen through availability and purposive sampling which creates a bias because a majority of these juveniles have been involved in the court system at one point or another in their lives. These students were from a variety of classes from one high school but all meet in a class for behaviorally and emotionally disturbed students. 

            I divided my survey into a few separate indexes, one was general information about the juvenile, the next was information about the relationship with the family and the last was to measure the level of delinquency (see Appendix 1).


            The findings from this research support my hypothesis, which was the least amount of structure the family provides the more likely the child will be driven to committing delinquent activities.  There were twenty-six respondents in all; 15 males and 11 females.  Race seemed pretty equally represented surveying 2 Latinos, 11 whites, 12 blacks, and 1 other who was half black and half white.  Twenty-three of the respondents were enrolled in school.  Those students had g.p.a.’s ranging from a .50 to a 3.0 the mean average was a 2.0.  The other three students were attempting to get their GED for hopes of getting a better job or perhaps enrolling in a higher education facility of some sort.  The living situation varied from student to student; 9 lived with both biological mother and father, 6 with just mother, 2 with father, 2 with biological mother and stepfather, 3 with biological father and stepmother, 1 wither foster parents and 3 with some other guardian. 

            Of the twenty-six students surveyed, 14 experienced some type of violence in the home.  Out of those students, five had been in fights where they had to be medically treated by a nurse or doctor, 13 drank alcohol, 13 smoked marijuana, 5 tried harder drugs, and 9 had stolen either monetary or material goods.  Half the adolescents surveyed spent less than twenty hours a week with their family.  Overall 42.3% smoked cigarettes, 50% drank alcohol, 50% smoked marijuana, and 61.5% had stolen.   Of the 16 that had admitted to stealing 9 came from two parent households.  Those individuals that smoked marijuana and drank said they felt like they did not have a very open relationship with their parents or guardians. 

            Although there were not very many direct correlations between variables in this research there were two that stood out.  The students that drank alcohol spent little time with their family and had very little parental supervision. Those same drinkers also smoked marijuana.  I also noticed that most of the drinkers, smokers, and fighters came from two parent households but these households provided minimal supervision and spent little time with the adolescent.

Discussion and Conclusion


Children, regardless of whether they are a product of a single parent or dual parent household, are more likely to become juvenile delinquents if there is a minimum amount of quality time spent with the guardians.  Guardians actually need to be “parents” rather than just provide for the child.  “Parents” provide structure which entails rules, encouragement, and any type of consistent adult behavior that a juvenile can use as guidelines throughout his or her own adolescent years. 

            Although a majority of delinquents are from single parent households, delinquency is fostered by a lack of parental/juvenile interaction.  Monitoring the child is also a major contribution towards the creation of delinquency.  By spending time with a juvenile as a family through family activities, it not only provides that necessary supervision for being aware of the whereabouts of the child, how the child is functioning emotionally, and how he or she is doing as an adolescent, it creates positive interaction with the parents that is needed for a healthy upbringing. 


                Due to time constraints I have not been able to get to as many delinquents as I would have liked to, so my research is lacking much data needed to make this article much stronger.  I definitely need to get more.  By getting a better sample size, I can make this research much better. 




Appendix I


 Do not write your name on this survey.  It is completely voluntary.  Some questions in this survey are just there to see what types of people your age are completing this survey. 


When completing this survey be honest.  None of this information will be reported.  If you come across a question that makes you uncomfortable, leave it blank.


Thank you for your cooperation.


Please circle your answer or fill in the blanks when necessary.

1. What is your gender?

a. Male                       b.   Female


2. What is your race?

a. Latino or Hispanic                        d.   Asian                   

b. Black                                              e.   Native American

c. White                                              f.    Other  ______________________________

3. How old are you? _________


4. What city and state do you currently live in?  _________________


5. Are you in school?  (If no, skip to #7)

a. Yes                         b.    No


6. If yes, what grade are you in?  ---------_______


7. What is your current grade point average?  If you do not know please estimate.   ____________


8. Who do you live with?

a. Both mother and father (adoptive or biological)

b. Just mother

c. Just father

d. Biological mother and stepfather

e. Biological father and stepmother

f. Other guardian(s)   ______________________________


9. What is the relationship like between you and your guardian?

a. Positive and open (meaning you feel comfortable talking to your guardian about anything)

b. Positive but not very open

c. Somewhat positive and somewhat open

d. Negative relationship and not open at all



10.  Do you ever experience violence in your home?

a. Yes, all the time

b. Yes, sometimes

c. Yes, but it is rare

d. Never         

            If yes, what type of violence? _____________________________


11. Do you spend time with your mom and dad at the same time?

a. Yes, all the time

b. Yes, sometimes

c. Yes, but it is rare

d. Never


12. Are you usually left alone without the supervision of your guardian?

a. Yes, all the time

b. Yes, sometimes

c. Yes, but it is rare

d. Never


13.     How much time do you spend with your family during a week?

a.      all hours that I am not in school

b.      +30 hours

c.      +20 hours

d.      +10 hours


14.     Which family member would you like to spend more time with?



This section is about behavior.

15. In the past year how many times were you in a physical fight in which you were injured and had to be treated by a doctor or a nurse?

a. 0                              d.   5-6

b. 1-2                          e.    More than 7 times

c. 3-4


16. Do you smoke?  (If no, skip to #18)

a. Yes                         b.     No


17. In the past month on the days that you smoked, generally how many cigarettes did you smoke per day?


a. 1-5

b. 6-10

c. 11-15

d. 15-20

e.      more than 20


18. In the past month how many days did you drink any alcohol?

a. 0                              d.   5-6

b. 1-2                          e.    7 or more days

c. 3-4


19. In the past 6 months how many times have you smoked marijuana?

a. 0                              d.   5-6

b. 1-2                          e.    More than 7 times

c. 3-4


20. Have you ever tried any other drugs other than marijuana or alcohol? (If no, skip to #22)    

a. Yes                         b.     No


21. If yes, what type of drugs? (Check all that apply)

a. Cocaine                                         f.    Huffing (wippets)

b. Heroine                                          g.   Pills

c. LSD                                                h.   Ecstacy

d. PCP (angel dust)                          i.    Crack

e. Mushrooms                                    j.    Other (specify) _______________________


22. Have you have ever stolen?  (If no, skip to #25)

a. Yes

b. No


23. If you could put a price on the greatest amount of goods you have stolen at one time, around how much would it amount to?

a. $0-75                                  f.   375-450

b. 75-150                               g.   450-525

c. 150- 225                            h.   525-600

d. 225-300                             i.    600+

e. 300-375


24. How much actual cash have you stolen at one time?  _______________

a. $0-75                                  f.   375-450

b. 75-150                               g.   450-525

c. 150- 225                            h.   525-600

d. 225-300                             i.    600+

e. 300-375


25. Did you regret doing any of these activities?

a. Yes, every time

b. Yes, sometimes

c. Yes, but rarely

d. No, never


Amato, Paul and Juliana M. Sobolewski.  2001.  “The effects of divorce on adult

            children’s psychological well-being.”  American Sociological Review.

            66: 900-921.

Cashwell, Craig S. and Niccholas A. Vacc. 1996. “Family Functioning and Risk

Behaviors: Influences on adolescent delinquency.” School Counselor. 44: 105-15.

Clark, Richard D. and Glenn Shields.  1997.  “Family Communication and

Delinquency.”  Adolescence. 32:  81-91.

Gorman-Smith, Deborah and Patrick H. Tolan.  1998. “Relation of family

problems to patterns of Delinquent involvement among urban youth.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.  26: 319-34.

Gorman-Smith, Deborah, Patrick Tolan, Ashli J. Sheidow, and David B. Henry. 

            “Partner Violence and Street Violence among Urban Adolescents: Do the

            Same Family Factors Relate?”  Journal of Research on Adolescence.

            11: 273-95.

Flouri, Eirini and Ann Buchannan.  2002.  “Father Involvement in Childhood and

Trouble with the Police in Adolescence.”  Journal of Interpersonal Violence.  17: 689-94.

Hagan, John and Holly Foster.  2001.  “Youth violence and the end of

adolescence.”  American Sociological Review.  66: 874-899.

Immarigeon, Russ. 1996.  “Families know best.”  State Government News.  39:


Juby, Heather and David P. Farrington.  2001.  “Disentangling the Link between

Disrupted Families and Delinquency.” British Journal of Criminology.  41: 22-40.

Kim, Jungmeen E., E. Mavis Hetherington, and David Rice.  1999.  “Associations

            among Family Relationships, Antisocial Peers, and Adolscents

Externalizing Behaviors: Gender and Family Type Differences.”  Child

Development.  70: 1209-30.

Klein, Karla and Rex Forehand. 1997.  “Delinquency during the transition to early

adulthood: Family and parenting predictors from early…”  Adolescence.  32: 61-81.

Matherne, Monique and Adrian Thomas.  2001.  “Family environment as a

            predictor of adolescent delinquency.”  Adolescence.  36:  655-65.

Muehlenberg, Bill.  2002.  “The case for two-parent family Part II.”  National

            Observer.  53:  49-58.

Popenoe, David.  1997.  Life without Father. New Jersey, US:  Annual

Conference of the NCFR Fatherhood and Motherhood in a Diverse and Changing World.

Prochnow, Jane E. and James V. DeFronzo.  1997.  “The impact of economic

and parental characteristics on juvenile misconduct.”  Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Disorders.  5:119-128.

Thornberry, Terence P., Carolyn Smith, Craig Rivera, David Huizinga, and

Magda Stouthamer-Loeber. September 1999.  “Family Disruption and Delinquency.”  Juvenile Justice Bulletin.  1-7.


Wright, Kevin N. and Karen E. Wright.  1994.  Family Life, Delinquency, and

Crime: A Policymakers Guide.  Research Summary.  Washington DC:  OJJDP.  4-21.