The Relationship between Adolescent Attitudes towards Authority, Self-Concept, and Delinquency

By Levy, Kenneth St. C. | Adolescence, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Relationship between Adolescent Attitudes towards Authority, Self-Concept, and Delinquency

Levy, Kenneth St. C., Adolescence


Attitudes towards authority of youth and adults have been investigated in recent years in a number of Western countries. The present research focused on attitudes towards institutional authority among three groups of adolescents: nondelinquents, noninstitutionalized delinquents, and institutionalized delinquents. Relationships with self-concept were also investigated. It was found that attitudes towards parents, teachers, police, and the law were, in general, positive. Nondelinquents' attitudes were more positive than those of delinquents.

The relationship between parents and young children is generally uncomplicated in terms of understanding the locus of authority. As the child enters adolescence, logical and abstract reasoning skills increase, and there is a greater tendency to question authority. There is also a developmental behavioral dimension, in which the adolescent tests the limits of new adolescent-adult roles.

At this time, emotional adaptation becomes necessary for both adolescents and their parents. During puberty, the young person begins to seek an adult identity, which involves gradually establishing emotional independence from parents. Parents may react with anger or feelings of rejection. Reciprocal feelings of rejection also may be experienced by the adolescent. Thus, this is often a difficult period in the parent-adolescent relationship (Pardeck & Pardeck, 1990).

In a review of the literature from 1929 to 1982, Montemayor (1983) noted that the reasons for conflict between adolescents and parents remained much the same. According to Papini and Sebby (1988), common areas of conflict include school grades, time spent watching television, household chores, and personal appearance. Smetana (1988) reported very high acceptance by both parents and adolescents that parents should make rules. Further, rules related to moral matters were seen as correct regardless of whether parents enforced the rules. In addition, obedience to parents was not seen as a response to parental authority per se, but rather was based on the degree of internal acceptance of rules by the adolescent.


Adolescent behavioral changes are attributable to both social and biological factors, and are also related to attitudinal changes. Changes in attitudes are likely to be particularly significant with regard to delinquent behavior.

The changes in adolescence have been described from a number of psychological perspectives. Psychoanalytic theory argues that the development of sexual drives leads to attraction to others outside the family, resulting in conflict with parents, teachers, and other authority figures (Blos, 1979; Mazor & Enright, 1988). Cognitive theory proposes that, in adolescence, cognitive development progresses from the concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage. In this last stage, the adolescent acquires new powers of abstract reasoning, particularly those dealing with moral or equitable judgments (Kohlberg, 1984; Muuss, 1988).

Identity formation theory, consistent with the psychoanalytic and cognitive theories, regards the individual as moving through various stages to achieve a positive ego identity. Failure to successfully complete each stage can result in identity and role confusion (Erikson, 1959, 1968), which in turn may lead to delinquent behavior (Muuss, 1988) and other behavioral maladjustment (Protinsky, 1988).


Media reports on youth crime and delinquency regularly paint a picture of undisciplined and dangerous young people with negative attitudes towards authority. But can a general attitude towards institutional authority be attributed to adolescents; that is, do they have a propensity to respond to different authorities in the same manner?

In the last two decades, there have been a number of valuable studies in Australia that have measured young people's attitudes towards institutional authority.

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