Family Environment as a Predictor of Adolescent Delinquency

By Matherne, Monique M.; Thomas, Adrian | Adolescence, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Family Environment as a Predictor of Adolescent Delinquency


Matherne, Monique M., Thomas, Adrian, Adolescence


Delinquency, such as school misbehavior, drug usage, and weapon carrying, is a disturbing issue confronting adolescents, parents, and teachers alike. It is estimated that in the United States, 1,234 youths run away from home and 2,255 teenagers drop out of school each day. Every five minutes a youth is arrested for some type of violent crime, and every two hours a child is killed by a gun (Edelman, 1995). Taken together, the increase in the number and severity of such delinquent acts and their overwhelming cost for society validates the notion that delinquency has become a prominent national issue.

Continued efforts to decrease the number of delinquent acts have led many researchers to investigate the underlying factors that may lead youth to act out in delinquent ways. Indeed, many factors have been suggested to have correlational and/or causal links to delinquency. Webber (1997) has suggested that these can essentially be reduced to three fundamental factors: societal, individual, and/or family.

Research has suggested that societal factors such as accessibility of weapons (Edelman, 1995; Larson, 1994), media violence (Dorfman, Woodruff, Chavez, & Wallack, 1997; Webber, 1997), and inequitable educational opportunities (Mayer, 1995) may lead youth to become more delinquent (Webber, 1997). Likewise, individual factors exhibited early in childhood such as various forms of antisocial behaviors and difficult temperament have been found to predispose youth to problems later in life (Klein, 1995; Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995; Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1969). Research has also indicated that the family environment is an important variable in the development of delinquency, although the exact nature of the relationship between family environment and delinquency remains debatable (Cashwell & Vacc, 1996; Clark & Shields, 1997; Featherstone, Cundick, & Jensen, 1993; Flannery, Williams, Alexander, & Vazsonyi, 1999; Klein, Forehand, Armistead, & Long, 1997; Mathis & Yingling, 1990; McCord, 1991; Patterson, 1986; R osenbaum, 1989; Shields & Clark, 1995; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Conger, 1991).

Many family variables have been studied in an attempt to better understand the etiology of delinquency. For example, Rosenbaum (1989) found that adolescents who have a strong bond with their parents are less likely to be delinquent. Flannery et al. (1999) reported that adolescents without parental supervision during after-school hours are more likely to engage in delinquent acts. Featherstone et al. (1993) stated that youth from intact two-parent families are less likely to report school problems than are children from single-parent families. Clark and Shields (1997) reported that the level of familial communication is related to adolescent delinquent behavior. Cashwell and Vacc (1996) found that a cohesive family environment reduces the chances of delinquent behavior. Similarly, Shields and Clark (1995) found that low levels of adaptability in the family result in higher levels of delinquency. Thus, there appears to be a relationship between family environment and the development of delinquency in adolescen ts.

In particular, two specific aspects of the family environment seem to recur in the literature on delinquency. These may be best characterized as family status and family type. Family status refers simply to the composition of the family. Studies have consistently demonstrated that children from single-parent and reconstituted families may be more susceptible to problems than are children from traditional families (e.g., Featherstone et al., 1993; Thomas, Farrell, & Barnes, 1994). Family type refers to the way family members interact with each other, that is, levels of adaptability, cohesiveness, and communication demonstrated by the family unit.

In assessing family type for research and clinical practice, the model most frequently cited and most widely accepted is Olson, Russell and Sprenkle's (1979) Circumplex Model (Green, Kolevzon, & Vosler, 1985; Maynard & Olson, 1987; Olson, Russell, & Sprenkle, 1979; Rodick, Henggeler, & Hanson, 1986).

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