Have you ever wondered why some children grow into adult criminals?
Do you think that schools are responsible, or communities, or churches? Or how about parents?
Can bad parenting cause juvenile delinquency?
Many studies have demonstrated that a variety of hereditary and environmental factors show a causal relationship with juvenile delinquency. Personality disorders, physical abuse, substance dependence, and environment are just some of the many factors that can promote conduct disorder in our nation’s youth.
The term “Juvenile Delinquent” is more of a legal term than it is a diagnosis, and those children labeled juvenile delinquents by the courts are usually diagnosed with conduct disorder (Santrock, 2012).
Bad parenting is also strongly correlated with juvenile delinquency. But is there one specific style of parenting that tends to prevent (or cause) delinquency?
Research suggests that an authoritative parenting style dramatically decreases instances of juvenile delinquency. Conversely, neglectful parenting shows a distinct positive correlation with such behavior.
In other words: yes, bad parenting causes juvenile delinquency.
What is Juvenile Delinquency?
I spent a year at two different Juvenile Detention Centers in Northern Florida, working as both a teacher and a guidance counselor in an embedded educational program for both Level 6 and Level 8 Offenders.
Every student in the facility had been labeled by the courts as a “juvenile delinquent,” and the majority had been diagnosed with conduct disorder. A sizable percentage showed signs of alcohol and drug abuse, roughly one-third had been treated for venereal disease. About 15% were at one time victims of sexual abuse, usually by a close family member.
Most incarcerated juveniles were repeat offenders, and the overwhelming majority had no prominent male figure in their lives. In fact, of the 230 students with whom the author worked, only about 15-20 had parents who were married. The rest were either raised by a single parent, or a relative, such as a grandmother or an aunt.
Most of the boys had never even met their biological father. Others had stepfathers who were abusive, neglectful, or just absent.
One does not need to do a great deal of research to conclude that there is a correlation between bad parenting and juvenile delinquency.
While it would be incorrect to say with certainty that bad parenting styles produce bad children, there is nonetheless an obvious relationship between the quality of parenting and the likelihood that the child will engage in delinquent behaviors.
While several social factors play a role in juvenile delinquency, research shows that the major contributing factor is indeed the family unit – specifically, parenting, or lack thereof (Mmari, et al. 2010). Steinberg (2000) doubts “that there is an influence on the development of antisocial behavior among young people that is stronger than that of the family” (33).
He notes, as an example, that children who are physically abused by their parents are far more likely to abuse others and to expect abuse from others.
But what are the characteristics of good parenting, and why does it lessen the chances of juvenile delinquency?
Before we address this issue, let’s first talk about juvenile delinquency.
In order to understand juvenile delinquency, we need to properly define it. Berger (2000) defines juvenile delinquency as both major and minor lawbreaking by an individual aged eighteen younger.
Crimes can range from relatively minor infractions, such as truancy and petty theft, all the way to rape and murder.
Juvenile delinquency, thus, is a broad term connecting adolescents in two significant ways. First, their age, which will always be aged 18 and under. Second, that they have committed a crime and been prosecuted in a court of law.
Because this covers such a range of offenders, researchers have sought to identify different categories of delinquency, as it is such a broad term. Hoeve, et al. (2008) have identified five categories of juvenile delinquents, with most research concentrating on drug sales and violence.
The five types of delinquency include:
- a non-delinquent;
- moderate desisting;
- serious persisting;
- serious desisting trajectory.
For the purposes of this article, we will keep our focus on the latter three categories.
A non-delinquent may be a first-time offender, and may never find themselves in a courtroom ever again. A minor-persisting could be a child with a history of something relatively minor, like truancy.
Compare that to serious persisting and serious desisting trajectory, and now we are talking about robbery, carjacking, felony assault, rape, and even murder. These levels also indicate escalation, repeated arrest, and subsequent conviction.
Santrock (2012) notes that conduct disorder and juvenile delinquency are closely linked. According to his research, approximately five percent of American children show serious conduct disorders. An overwhelming majority (close to 80%) are males.
It is indeed fair to say that children diagnosed with conduct disorder are far more likely to become juvenile delinquents, which again is a legal distinction and not a clinical one.
Juvenile delinquency can be caused by a variety of factors. Negative peers, proximity to violence, low intelligence, delinquent peers, and certain genetic traits all play a role.
However, a great deal of research suggests that the family unit is perhaps the single greatest determiner of delinquent behavior in juveniles (Steinberg, 2000). And that’s where bad parenting comes in to focus.
Bad Parenting and Delinquency
As children develop, they attempt to make sense of the complicated world where they live. Whether they realize it not, children both want and need structure.
When done correctly, structure helps a child feel safe, and when they feel safe they feel loved. Bad parenting does the opposite.
The drawback of authoritarian parenting is that the “security” it provides is more like the security a prison provides as opposed to the security a parent is supposed to provide.
Indulgent parenting essentially spoils children. It promotes egocentrism, selfishness, and behavioral problems (Santrock, 2012). Ironically, some parents choose this style of parents to foster creativity and confidence in their children. However, because structure is lacking, this type of parenting often fails to produce the intended results.
Steinberg (2000) notes that “parental engagement in the children’s lives is one of the most important – if not the single most important – contributors to children’s healthy psychological development… adolescents whose parents are not sufficiently engaged in their lives are more likely to get into trouble than are other youngsters” (36).
Steinberg clarifies his position, stating that bad parenting styles are a risk factor, not a definitive cause of juvenile delinquency.
The style of parenting to which he is referring is called Indifferent, or Neglectful Parenting, which is where the parents are largely absent from the child’s life.
As a result, the child receives almost no structure from his or her own parents, and in turn, seeks it from other outlets. These outlets can include social media, negative peer pressure, delinquent siblings, and the child’s own compromised mental health status.
It is perhaps no surprise that this style of parenting will most likely produce children with conduct disorders, who in turn stand a far greater chance of being labeled juvenile delinquents by the court system (Hoeve, et al. 2007).
While authoritarian and indulgent parenting styles ultimately prove harmful to a child’s upbringing, they do not correlate to delinquent behavior in the way that neglectful parenting does. It is also important to the definition of “neglectful,” as it applies to this style of parenting.
This does not simply mean a lack of parental involvement, though that may certainly be one dimension. It includes possible mental health and substance abuse issues in the family, the effects of a divorce on the family unit, and outside influences on the child that factor more heavily than the parent, such as peer influences or dangerous neighborhoods (Steinberg, 2000 & others).
Parenting Styles: An examination
According to Wright and Wright (1994), the family unit is the foundation of human society. Children who grow up in an environment immersed in conflict, or who are the victims of abuse, or who lack proper parental modeling and supervision, are far more likely to engage in delinquent behavior.
This research is nothing new. Almost half a century ago, Eisner (1966) demonstrated that regardless of ethnicity, children raised by two parents were far less likely to commit crimes than those raised by a single parent.
The world, however, has changed, with single-parent homes more of the norm than an aberration. Current research has focused not on the number of parents, but on the style of parenting to which the child has been exposed.
Diana Baumrind (1971) has identified four different parenting styles and has noted that some are far more effective than others. They are as follows: Neglectful Parenting is characterized by an utter lack of involvement in the child’s life.
Such bad parenting causes poor self-esteem, poor self-control, and will likely promote truancy and delinquency during adolescence (Santrock, 2012).
Indulgent Parents are quite involved in their child’s life, but place hardly any demands in terms of behavioral expectations. Parents might engage in this style of parenting to promote independence and creativity, but the opposite usually occurs.
One of the hallmarks of bad parenting is a complete lack of structure.
Children reared this way tend to be egocentric and have a hard time relating to others. It does not, however, tend to promote delinquent behavior, perhaps because the child already gets whatever he wants from his parents in the first place.
Neglectful Parents are those who disregard the emotional, educational, physical, or security needs of their children. This could be willful, as in the case of abandonment, or due to ignorance and lack of education.
Regardless of the reason, neglectfulness is a bad parenting style that often garners the attention of Child Protective Services. In their homes you’ll often find empty refrigerators, hazardous conditions, and limited to know adult supervision.
Authoritarian Parenting is a style where the parent’s word is Law.
Children are tightly controlled and punished for transgressions. There is little verbal exchange between parent and child.
This is a domineering, punitive style of parenting that can result in unhappy and anxious children (Santrock, 2012).
Bad parenting can present itself in several ways. This is one that’s tough to spot, because many of us associate discipline with good parenting.
But it’s not enough to just discipline and punish. Children must also learn why their behavior is not acceptable.
Authoritative Parenting is a style that encourages children to be independent but still provides the rules and consistency that children need to feel safe and in control.
Parents who use this style will explain to their children why certain rules exist, or perhaps why a child’s behavior was inappropriate. Parents tend to be supportive and nurturing, which in turn promotes mature and age-appropriate behavior in their children.
An overwhelming amount of research indicates that authoritative parenting is the preferred method of child-rearing (Santrock, 2012). The Santrock text cites examples that show that authoritative parenting transcends ethnic, social, and cultural lines, indicating that it is almost universally applicable.
It does note, though, that the application of authoritarian parenting does work in certain culturally specific situations.
Asian-American families, generally speaking, use a form of authoritarian parenting, but Santrock (2012) notes that this form of parenting is distinct in that it is conceptualized as a form of “training” rather than one characterized by punishment. Similar examples can be found in Latino cultures.
The problem with authoritarian parenting is that it does not provide adequate context for the child. A child who is punished without understanding the reason for their punishment is simply a child being punished, as opposed to one who has a chance to learn from a mistake and thus not repeat it.
Authoritative parenting shares some characteristics with authoritative parenting.
Discipline and structure are key in both, but an authoritative parent tries to make sure that their child understands the reasons why their behavior was inappropriate and why they are being punished. Perhaps most importantly, this style ensures that the child knows that they are still loved and supported, despite the transgression.
This is a major way in which authoritarian parenting fails – children are severely punished and are trained to think that their actions have somehow compromised their parents’ love for them.
Santrock (2012) notes that many longitudinal studies show that the children of authoritarian parents tend to be more aggressive, more prone to violence and delinquency, and less trusting of others.
Simply put, authoritarian parenting promotes antisocial behavior; authoritative parenting promotes socially responsible children.
A Possible Solution
What can we do to stem the tide of delinquency among our nation’s youth? If every parent paid more attention to their children, surely that would be a step in the right direction.
But a massive change like that is perhaps unrealistic, at least without some form of third-party direction.
In “Strengthening America’s Families,” Alvarado and Kumpfer (2000) discuss an Initiative aimed at doing just that. They acknowledge that delinquency stems from a number of interrelated social problems, from neglectful parenting to inappropriate sexual activity, but they believe that the key is family unity.
“Because families are the first point of a child’s social contact, it is essential that parents understand the critical role they play in their children’s development and that they are equipped with the information and skills necessary to raise healthy and well-adapted children” (9).
The Strengthening America’s Family Initiative is a program designed to give parents the skills they need to decrease risk factors associated with juvenile delinquency.
In their paper, they discuss the concept of “Protective Factors,” which they argue are the key to maintaining a strong family unit. “Parental supervision, attachment to parents, and consistency of discipline are the most important protective factors” (9).
These provide a strong defense against risk factors such as peer substance abuse, parental mental disorders, bad parenting styles, family isolation, poverty, violence, and several other interrelated social issues.
It seems as if awareness is a key weapon in the war against juvenile delinquency. Many parents simply need to be educated about the risks associated with improper parenting.
Parents who are teenagers themselves, or who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs, or who are themselves the victim of bad parenting styles must learn the skills necessary to raise their children in environments where an overwhelming amount of risk factors place their children in constant danger.
By providing the skill sets to these parents, the Initiative hopes to reduce the overall percentage of juvenile delinquents in the country.
Having worked for years with repeat juvenile offenders, I have seen firsthand the dangers of juvenile delinquency. The epidemic is not just destructive to the family unit but to society as a whole.
Teenage criminals are in many ways more dangerous than their adult counterparts. They tend to lack a firm grasp of consequences in the way that adults do, and because their perspective is that of a child’s, their understanding of the ramifications of their actions is compromised.
Without proper supervision, juveniles are incredibly susceptible to negative peer influences, and may simply lack the coping skills most adults have to face the challenges implicit in daily life.
So important is the concept of structure in a child’s life that many residents of juvenile correctional faculties actually prefer incarceration to life on the streets.
For many, a detention center provides meals, shelter, medical care, and protection from predators. Perhaps most importantly, many juvenile offenders find their first real positive role models inside the walls of the detention facilities – the guards and teachers and caseworkers and therapists to which they are assigned.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that authoritative parenting promotes well-adjusted youth. It should also be obvious that neglectful parents tend to produce conduct disorders in their children, which in turn produces juvenile delinquents.
The overwhelming amount of research and data demonstrates conclusively that there is such a thing as proper and improper parenting.
While neglectful parenting does not absolutely cause conduct disorders, the relationship is undeniable.
While Santrock (2012) and others note that an integrative approach to parenting is often effective as well, the practicing therapist can rest assured that the authoritative parenting style is the best defense against juvenile delinquency, and the neglectful parenting style is the most likely cause.
It is thus imperative for parents to understand the importance of positive involvement and the dangers of neglect.
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- Alvarado, R., and Kumpfer, Karol (2000). Strengthening America’s families. Journal of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention 7(3): 9-18,
- Baumrind, Diana (1971). Current patterns of behavioral authority. Developmental Psychology. 4(1, Part 2): 1-103.
- Berger, K.S. (2000). the developing person through childhood and adolescence. New York: Worth Publishers
- Chung, He Len, & Steinberg, Laurence. (2006). Relations between neighborhood factors, parenting behaviors, peer deviances, and delinquency among serious juvenile offenders. Dev Psychol. 42(2): 319-331
- Forehand, Rex, et al. (1997). Role of parenting in adolescent deviant behavior: replication across and within two ethnic groups. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: 65(6):1036-1041.
- Hoeve, M., Blockland, A., et al. (2008). Trajectories of delinquency and parenting styles. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 223-235.
- Mmari, N.K., Blum, W.R., & Teufel-Stone, N. (2010). What increase risk and protection for delinquent behaviors among American India Youth? Findings from three tribal communities. Youth & Society, 41, 382-413.
- Ryan, Joseph P. & Testa, Mark F. (2005). Child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency: investigating the role of placement and placement instability.Children and Youth Services Review. 27(3): 227-249
- Santrock, John W. (2012). A topical approach to lifespan development (6th Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Steinberg, Laurence. (2000). Youth violence: do parents and families make a difference? National Institute of Justice Journal, 31-38
- Wright, Kevin N. and Wright, Karen E. (1994). Family Life, Delinquency, and Crime: A Policymakers Guide. Research Summary. Washington, D.C: OJJDP: 4-21.