Family Communication and Delinquency

By Clark, Richard D.; Shields, Glenn | Adolescence, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Family Communication and Delinquency


Clark, Richard D., Shields, Glenn, Adolescence


Family researchers have examined a number of characteristics of the relationship between family functioning and delinquent activity, such as broken homes, family cohesiveness, parental attitudes, and parental discipline. Increasingly, attention has focused on one common element of each characteristic: communication between parents and children (Oyserman & Saltz, 1993; Scannapieco, 1993; Graves, Openshaw & Adams, 1992; Masselam, Marcus, & Stunkard, 1990; Morrison & Zetlin, 1992).

Communication among family members is generally accepted as one of the most crucial facets of interpersonal relationships and is seen as a key to understanding the dynamics underlying family relations. Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) defined a family as a rule-governed system whose members are continually defining and redefining the nature of their relationship through patterns of communication. Galvin and Brommel (1991) postulate that family members utilize patterns of communications to organize themselves into predictable modes of behavior. By studying communication patterns, it is possible to understand such things as cohesion, decision-making processes, and the rules and roles that operate within the family system. Barnes (1989), for example, noted that discrepancies between parents' and adolescents' perception of the family were related to poor communication between the two generations. In addition, Reichertz and Frankel (1990) noted that compared to families who were experiencing problems with their children, "optimal families" were more open and expressive when communicating.

Communication has also been identified as important for understanding delinquency. Hirschi (1969), in a study of self-reported delinquency among boys, noted that as the intimacy of communication between the parent and the child increased, the likelihood that the child will commit delinquent acts decreased. Comparing this finding to earlier work that found little difference among delinquents and non-delinquents in level of communication, Hirschi concluded that it was not communication per se that influenced delinquency, but rather the "focus" of the communication. Similar findings regarding the type of communication and its relationship to delinquency were noted by Cernkovich and Giordano (1987) who reported that instrumental communication (i.e., talking about problems, plans for the future) was significantly related to lower levels of delinquency, while intimate communication (i.e., sharing of private thoughts and feelings) was unrelated to delinquent behaviors. Thus, while Hirschi and Cernkovich and Giordano differed on the importance of "intimate" communication, they agreed that "types" of family communication are important for understanding delinquency.

The focus of the current study is on adolescents' self-reported delinquent behavior and two types of family communication - open and problem. It was hypothesized that those adolescents who reported less open and more problem communication with their parents would also report higher levels and more serious forms of delinquency.

Sample

The subjects of this study were 339 high school students from a small, rural, mostly white Midwestern city. Participation was voluntary with confidentiality assured by the use of an anonymous questionnaire. A comparison of the sample demographics to the total population revealed no significant differences on sex, race, or grade level. There were slightly more females (53%) than males, and the age range was 14 to 19 with a mean of 16.2. Only a small portion of the sample (11%) was minority. Family structure was somewhat diverse but the predominate characteristic was that both biological parents were present in the home (62%).

Instruments

Adolescents were administered the Parent-Adolescent Communication Scale (PACS; Barnes & Olson, 1985) which was developed to measure the extent of openness or freedom of exchange related to ideas, information, and concerns between parents and their adolescent children. …

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