The FBI reports that between 1980 and 1990, violent crime arrest rates for 10-17-year-olds increased by 27%, reaching the nation's all-time high (Uniform Crime Reports for the United States, 1991). Strikingly, the overall arrest rate for the 18-24 year age range is almost twice as high as that of youth under age 18 (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992). As young adult criminality has reached crisis proportions in the United States, its prevention has become increasingly crucial. Research which clarifies the developmental pathways to criminal behaviors must play a primary role in focusing intervention strategies.
Research examining environmental influences on delinquency has highlighted the impact of the family. Although the majority of these studies have been cross-sectional, family variables have also been examined longitudinally as predictors of later delinquent behavior. Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber (1986) reviewed multidisciplinary longitudinal studies of the relationship between family conditions and delinquency, concluding that parental supervision, parental rejection, and parent-child involvement are among the strongest predictors of conduct problems and delinquent behavior. Parents' marital relations and criminality are moderately strong predictors, while weaker predictors include lack of parental discipline, parental physical/mental health, and parental absence. Subsequent research, primarily examining relationships between concurrent predictor and outcome variables, indicates that family variables such as marital conflict and marital status can directly predict delinquent behavior (e.g., Borduin, Pruitt, & Henggeler, 1986; Tygart, 1990).
The above review, suggesting that aspects of parenting may be the most important predictors of delinquency, along with the cited research demonstrating the impact of other family variables, leads to the question of the combined effects of these family characteristics. Perhaps of primary importance is that parenting may moderate or qualify the relationship between family variables (i.e., marital status and conflict) and delinquency. Existing research has provided some building blocks in the investigation of these relationships.
The impact of environmental variables on parenting behaviors has been examined in several studies, primarily focusing on the role of family stressors (e.g., divorce, marital conflict, and parental depression). Research has shown that parenting practices and interactions of stressed parents with children are more likely to be hostile, irritable, coercive, and inconsistent than those of nonstressed parents (Biglan, Hops, & Sherman, 1988; Patterson & Forgatch, 1990; Webster-Stratton, 1990).
In addition, disruptions in parenting which result from various family stressors have been correlated with compromised child adjustment (Downey & Coyne, 1990), child conduct problems (Webster-Stratton, 1990), and antisocial behavior (Patterson, 1986). Such research suggests that parenting behaviors may play a significant role in moderating the effects of family stressors on children's general functioning and delinquent behaviors. Although the existing foundation of research allows for tentative hypotheses about the relationships between family stressors and parenting behaviors and delinquency, definitive conclusions are limited for a variety of reasons.
First, although the role of parenting as a moderating variable has been considered for several areas of child and adolescent functioning, little attention has been paid to criminal behaviors as outcome measures. Second, existing delinquency research is limited by a lack of consistency and specificity in definitions of delinquent behaviors. As Stouthamer-Loeber and Loeber (1988) point out, it is unlikely that a single set of causal factors can effectively predict delinquency; instead, it is likely that different levels of delinquent behaviors are influenced by some unique and some common causal factors. …