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Theories for Juvenile Delinquency


The current paper attempts to examine the theories which establish a correlation between juvenile delinquency and the family. Many studies have been conducted and there is still theorizing about how an inadequate family structure leads to delinquency. On the other hand, the literature agrees that juvenile delinquency is highly probable when the family structure fails to provide the appropriate care and guidance that it ought to offer to its offspring. Three of such theories are mapped out in this paper which are: Social Learning, Social Control Theory, and Attachment Theory.

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The Literature Review

There is a lavish literature on juvenile delinquency and the impact of family. For parsimonious considerations, it might be useful to outline some major theories in this regard. It has to be noted that the theories linking family and juvenile delinquency fall all under the social approach, as there are other schools with different focuses other than family (biology, genetics, etc.). Accordingly, three conceptual schools are examined. First, the social learning theory is studied. The major idea explored by this school is that youngsters learn their behavior from their social environment, of which the most important element is family.

Second, Social control theory is presented, highlighting how attachment to social institutions play the role of a check on delinquent behavior. Third, as somewhat a logical continuation on social theory, attachment theory is presented although chronologically it is prior to social theory. All three address adequately juvenile delinquency, focusing on different variables or risk factors that reflect different structural parental disorders.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is one of the most visited theories with regards to delinquency. It is often the basis for studying juvenile violence. The theory puts forth that human behavior is influenced by the experiences and the relationships to which he has been exposed. Learning theory is not directed exclusively to the study of criminal behavior. Behaviors are learned consciously (imitation) or unconsciously (Finley, 2007, p257). One learns delinquent behaviors the by being exposed to the actions and behaviors of the individuals which surround him, notably the family. Simply put, Social Learning theory posits that the social environment, including the family, influences human behavior.

However, with regards to violence and anti-social behavior -more appropriate to the focus of this paper- social learning theorists of the like of Nietzel, Hasemann, and Lynam contend that environmental factors among others (biological precursors and psychological predispositions) can explain violent behavior among young people (Goldstein, 2004, p5). Violence, just like any other behavior, is learnt (Goldstein, 2004, p5).

Goldstein, referring to the existing literature, highlights the influence of family conflicts and maltreatment in childhood on developing anger and depression (Goldstein, 2004). He exposes, in this regard, the findings of Howes, Cicchetti, Toth, and Rogosch who conducted in-home observations on some 42 families who mistreat their children; these fall under the category of preschool children, i.e. early childhood. The identified ill parental behaviors are neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. The findings were that these families displayed anger and, in turn, were more chaotic and less organized around family roles (Goldstein, 2004, p44).

It is interesting that in this regard, these families showed more anger feelings in comparison with some other examined families who were sampled out as lower-income families. The idea behind this and actually the result is that families with deviant behavior are more dangerous than poor families. This puts into perspective the intuitive idea that poverty influences delinquent behavior.

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Goldstein comments that under such environment as displayed by the 42 examined families, “children growing up in this environment will not be able to freely express negative affect and be appropriately reassured. All aspects of affect dysregulation are thus modeled and shaped for the child” (Goldstein, 2004, p44). The studies show that there is cause-to-effect relationship between family and parental disorder and juvenile delinquency. It is no longer a matter of speculation, empirical observation endorse the theory. The causality relationship underscores the fact that the parent or eventually the caretaker’s behavior influences the children of whom s/he is responsible. Goldstein’s comment on the negative impact of the building up of anger is shared by other scholars. Studies have shown that anger increases the risk of engaging in delinquent behavior (Simons and al, 2007).

Some scholars, Ronald and Leslie Simons, Yi-Fu Chen, Gene Brody and Kuei-Hsiu Lin, further define the correlation between parental behavior and child behavior as that of emulation or unconscious learning. Youngsters emulate deviant and anti-social behaviors of their caretakers (Simons and al, 2007, p27). The reference here is to such acts as fighting, lying, and stealing (Simons and al, 2007, p27).

Conscious or unconscious influence, dysfunctional family constitutes a risk factor; it predicts future delinquent behavior. Such scholars as Lipsey MW and Derzon JH indicate that antisocial parents and poor parental upbringing, two other facets of deviant family behavior, constitute risk factors for the development of misbehavior among youth (Farrington, 2000). Studies have shown that indeed there are cases which confirm the correlation of misdemeanors, as the scholars point out. A Cambridge study has demonstrated that a having a convicted parent is a predictor for juvenile violence among children up to 10 years old (Farrington, 2000, p738).

Violence and physical abuse also affect later development of children. A survey conducted by Windom C.S. found that recorded violence and physical abuse have predicted later arrests, for the youngsters who have been subject to them (Farrington, 2000, p738). Moreover, he found that abuse, neglect, and sexual offense undergone in young age also predict sex crimes (Farrington, 2000, p738).

Thus, learning theory concludes that criminal juvenile behavior is a consequence of environment. Accordingly, hints at family dysfunctionning are read as predictors of later juvenile violence. The way the influence operates is either through conscious learning, imitation, or unconscious acquisition. The most pernicious factor in such negative learning is the building up of anger, and most important, the inability to voice out the anger. The process of building up translates, at later stage, into violence.

Social / Self Control Theory

Social Control theory -sometimes referred to as Self Control Theory- advances the idea that such social institution as the family plays the role of a check on one’s behavior (Hay, 2001). It is our social bonds that make control our behavior and not engage in criminal activity. How this translates in youngsters’ behavior is that the more the child grows attached to the social institutions, like family, they more they are likely to abide by socially acceptable behavior. The failure of such attachment encourages nurturing a delinquent behavior.

The school has numerous scholars. Gottfredson and Hirschi contend that commitment to conventional morality prevents delinquency, whereby the social control over behavior (Simons and al, 2007, 488). They argue that the major cause for self-control – an important variable that determines criminal behavior- is ineffective childhood upbringing (Hay, 2001, p708). They contend that criminal behavior is developed among children who have low self-control which, in turn, is fostered by ineffective parenting. They did not conduct tests to prove his theory but he remains a major defender of the theory that effective parenting generate socially adequate juvenile behavior.

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Hay, reviewing the legacy of Gottfredson and Hirschi, points out to the fact that their theory rfelcts a classic view of human behavior that “All human conduct can be understood as the selfinterested pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain” (Hay, 2001, p711). In this respect, crime is defined by the pursuit of happiness and self interests; crime generates “immediate, easy, and short-term pleasure” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, p 41; Hay, p 711). Hay pertinently states that Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory does not investigate the cause of crimes –as they assert- but what control it. The variable of self-control answers this investigation into what prevents criminality.

Simons R.; Simons L.; Chen; Brody and Lin put in perspective the extent to which parenting influences the mechanism of self control. They refer to studies conducted by Pratt and Cullen whereby it was found that the coefficient of self control with regards to the impact of parenting is not exclusive. Whereas it shows the limits of the theory, it does not diminish from its validity. It only shows that the self control mechanism is one of many variables that intervene in influencing juvenile delinquency. Simons and al do indeed draw the attention to the fact that so far, evidence shows that up to one quarter of juvenile delinquency can be explained from the prism of self-control (Simons and al, 2007, p 486).

Social control and self control theory has been helpful in studies that examine delinquency among children that have been exposed to foster care, during their upbringing. A study into the issue has been conducted by Ryan and al who have investigated African American males in foster care and the risk of delinquency as a result of ineffective social control (Ryan, Joseph P.; Testa, Mark F.; Zhai, Fuhua, 2008). The choice of male African American demographic should be understood as a study on a sample of youngsters that can be applied onto juvenile delinquency in general.

The study examines how lack of primary precepts of social control, which they determine to be attachment and commitment, may predict delinquency. The scholars declare that the two variables are grounded in social control theory and form what they call social bond. They use also an intervening variable, permancy or stability in foster cares, but it should be retained that their study is mainly based on the two afor-mentionned variables.

Locating attachment in the literature, they study the relationship between children and their care takers in foster homes and how a good one can play down the negative impact of separation from the biological parents (Ryan and al, 2008, p 117). The examination follows the logic provided by Hirschi of social control instilled by parenting. As to the concept of commitment, Ryan and al explain that their study tests and explores the idea that investment in social institutions prevents delinquency, as advanced by scholars like Polakowski (Ryan and al, 2008, p.120).

The findings confirm the initial hypothesis that underly the social control theory, namely, that high levels of attachment between the foster child and the foster parent associated with a reduced risk of delinquency (Ryan and al, 2008, p. 121). Hence, it twas found that delinquency for AfricanAmerican males in the foster care system varies dependeing ont the type of relationships they develop while there. In so far as attachment is concerned , males reporting more positive relationships with foster care providers were less likely to experience a delinquency petition (Ryan and al , 2008, p 131). Likewise, i twas concluded that commitment to social institutions reduces the risk of engaging in deliquent activity (Ryan and al, 2008, p. 128).

The study encourages perhaps the examination of yet another theory, Attachment Theory which exclusively analyzes juvenile delinquency from the prism of parent-child attachement. Attachment theory is goes in fact in par, in terms of logic, with social control theory. It is indeed, precedent in time to social theory, and therefore shows some partial overlap.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory, as it name indicates, focuses on the variable of attachment between parents and child. The theory is built on the assumption that the relationship between parents and caregivers in general has an impact on the behavior of children when they later grow into adolescence or adulthood. Thus, negative parent-child relationships are risk factor for developing delinquent behavior.

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Under this theory we find such scholars as Bowlby and Lyons-Ruth who contend that hostility and ejection on the part of parents increases the chances that their children may adopt anti-social behavior (Simons and al, p 487). When such deviant behavior is adopted, the delinquent operates from a logic where s/he sees that people are untrustworthy and exploitative; the projection of bad intentions triggers a confrontational attitude, which become seen as the approach to adopt in society in order to face people, contends Dodge (Simons and al, p 487).

Research endorses such conclusion, argues Dodge, as it has shown that this view is adopted by aggressive children and institutionalized delinquents (Simons and al, p 487). By contrast, children growing within a healthy framework in their households have a secure attachment style (Simons and al, p 488). Bretherton believes that this helps them develop an optimistic and trustworthy view of people, as opposed to confrontational stand point (Simons and al, p 488).

Attachment teory has stirred interests of some scholars who applied it to examine real cases. Elgar and al report thatthe Minnesota Mother-Child Project (1985) found that “children who were insecurely attached as infants were more likely to have poor peer relations and more symptoms of aggression and depression in childhood” (Elgar and al, 2003, p.37). They report similar result upon some studies on violent behavior among children.

They refer to DeKlyen and colleagues who found that children displaying deviant behavior and agressiveness were in fact projecting insecure atachment styles. The same dysfunctional attachment style is to account for sex offenses. Marcus and Gray have found evidence showing that young offenders are likekely males who have a negative relationship with their mothers, notably the existence of feelings of rejection (Elgar and al, 2003, p.37).

Elgar; Knight; Worrall; and Sherman conducted a study on urban and rural juvenile delinquents (Elgar and al, 2003). The hypotheses of the study were based on attachment theory and its prediction of parent-child attachment style influence. The results vindicate largely the theoretical basis of the study. Indeed, the scholars found that: “insecure attachment characteristics correlated with behavioural problems, substance use, and poor family functioning. It was also found that urban delinquents, compared to their rural counterparts, reported more substance use problems, moreinterpersonal problems with peers and family members, and more externalising behaviour (e.g., hyperactivity, aggression, inattention)” (Elgar and al, 2003, p.46).

Assessment of the Literature

The three theories clearly adhere to the social approach. It does not mean that social theories are the only theories that are valid in explaining criminality and delinquency in the case of youngsters. Rather, they are effective in elucidating the role of family. No one theory can stand by itself to explain fully the correlation between family and juvenile delinquency. The theories are complementary, especially social theory and attachment theory.

The potential of complementarity in offering a more comprehensive framework for the study has been seized by Simons and al (Simons and al, 2008) who used variables offered by the above theories and some other ones and applied it on a sample of African American males from 10 to 14 years old. Their hybrid strategy, strongly anchored in social theories using such elements as self control and conventional goals, have shown the relative effectiveness of such theories. Ultimately, the scholars demonstrate that it has been widely accepted that there is a causality between parenting and juvenile delinquency which is true.

Nevertheless, the weakness of theories is considering exclusively one variable at a time. They propose a study that takes into consideration various aspects of parental behavior. They read juvenile behavior as a sum result of many, not just one, practices. This weakness, they contend, results in a lack of information on the various dimensions of parenting (Simons and al, p 505). Still, their compound theoretical framework reinforces what all the social theories advance- that there is a correlation between parenting and juvenile delinquency.


The above studied theories are all helpful in understanding some aspects of the role that family, notably parents, play on shaping their children’s behavior. The theories have been sustained by empirical evidence through the studies and tests conducted by various scholars. Although they are limited because they consider one variable at a time, they are important to the larger study of criminology.


DP Farrington, R Loeber (2000). Epidemiology of Juvenile Violence, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics Of North America.

Ronald L. Simons and al (2007). Identifying the Psychological Factors that Mediate The Association Between Parenting, Criminology, Volume 45 Number 3.

Goldstein, Arnold (2004). New Perspectives On Aggression Replacement Training: Practice, Research and Application Wiley Series in Forensic Clinical Psychology. Chichester, West Sussex, England, Hoboken, NJ John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. (UK).

Finley, Laura L (2007). Encyclopedia of Juvenile Violence. Westport, Conn Greenwood Publishing Group.

Hay, Carter (2001). Parenting, Self-Control, And Delinquency: A Test Of Self-Control Theory, Criminology, Vol. 39 Issue 3.

Ryan, Joseph P. ; Testa, Mark F. ; Zhai, Fuhua (2008). African American Males in Foster Care and the Risk of Delinquency: The Value of Social Bonds and Permanance, Child Welfare , Vol. 87, number 1.

Elgar, Frank J.; Knight, John; Worrall, Graham J.; Sherman, Gregory. Attachment Characteristics and Behavioural Problems in Rural and Urban Juvenile Delinquents, Child Psychiatry & Human Development, Fall2003, Vol. 34 Issue 1.

Simons and al (2007). Identifying The Psychological Factors That Mediate The Association Between Parenting Practices And Delinquency* (* reference incmplete by customer).

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