Families and Juvenile Delinquency

Juvenile delinquency is a complex issue that does not have one single cause. Juveniles may be motivated by external and internal factors such as peer pressure or a mental illness. One major factor though that can influence a juvenile in their conscious decision to take part in delinquency is the family. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (NASB). Parents are the first people that young children learn lessons from and as Solomon said, the lessons and values taught early on will be carried throughout one’s life. Family dynamics, such as the absence of the father, family changes, and convicted parents, can have a large impact on whether a juvenile engages in delinquent acts.

Overview of Juvenile Delinquency

To gain a better understanding of juvenile delinquency, it is important to review some of the history and current trends of juvenile delinquency in the United States.

History of Juvenile Justice

The juvenile justice system is not a very old system. For many years, juveniles were treated the same as an adult offender and “until the twentieth century little distinction was made between adult and juvenile offenders who were brought before the law” (Siegel & Welsh, 2017, Developing Juvenile Justice, para 1). However, during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, different groups brought attention to the need to create a separate justice system for juveniles and by 1917, all but three states had created a juvenile court system. Reforms to the juvenile justice system would later happen in the mid-to-late twentieth century (Siegel & Welsh, 2017).

Juvenile Delinquency Current Trends

Criminal activity for both adults and juveniles has seen a decrease in recent years and specifically over the past few decades the number of crimes committed by juveniles has been decreasing. However, despite only accounting for about 6 percent of the population, “juveniles are responsible for about 11 percent of the Part I violent crime arrests and about 19 percent of the property crime arrests” (Siegel & Welsh, 2017, Delinquency Arrest Trends, para 1). Despite the drop in delinquency during recent years, juveniles continue to be overrepresented in crime.

Specific Family Dynamics and Delinquency

The family has been shown to have a great effect on juveniles and their decision on whether or not to take part in delinquency. Siegel and Welsh (2017) wrote that “[f]amilies suffering stress, disruption, or change can have a long-lasting impact on children and shape their behavioral choices” (The Family’s Influence on Delinquency, para 1). There are some specific aspects of family dynamics that have a great impact on juvenile delinquency. These include the absence of fathers, big family changes, and incarcerated parents.

Absence of Fathers

The absence of fathers, or the presence of fathers who are harsh and uncaring, can have detrimental effects on children and adolescents, leading to juvenile delinquency. Simmons, Steinburg, Frick, and Cauffman (2018) noted that juveniles with absent fathers or with harsh fathers are more likely to commit illegal acts than those who have a good, healthy relationship with their father. Having a strong bond with one’s parents has been shown to decrease the chance that one will engage in delinquency; the opposite of this is also true. Simmons et al. (2018) found that “hostility in the parent-child relationship is related to higher rates of delinquency” and that “low levels of support are associated with increased adolescent use of alcohol, cocaine and marijuana” (p. 10). While having an absent father can be detrimental to a child, the presence of a harsh and unsupportive father can perhaps be more indicative that a child will engage in delinquency. In Ephesians 6:4, Paul writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (NLT). It is the duty of the parents to instruct their children on how to live but a harsh father will not have positive effects on the child. Both absent and harsh fathers have been shown to increase the likelihood that one will commit delinquent acts.

Changes in the Family Structure

The structure of the family can greatly impact juveniles. Changes in this structure, such as divorce or remarriage, can increase the chances of juveniles engaging in delinquent acts. Schroeder, Osgood, and Oghia (2010) state that “[y]outh from broken homes are at significantly higher risk of delinquency than youth from “intact” homes” (p. 581). This can be in part due to the emotional and mental damage that comes with divorce and separation but also due to the fact that “two parents are better equipped to monitor, supervise, and respond to the behaviors of their children than single parents” (Simmons et al., 2018, p. 10). Additionally, not only do broken homes have a negative effect on juveniles but so do other changes to the family structure such as remarriage or cohabitating families. Schroeder et al. (2010) wrote that “children in blended households (either cohabiting families or step-families) exhibit higher levels of delinquency than intact homes or single-parent homes” and that remarriage or cohabitation can have more negative effects on youths than being raised in a single-parent home (p. 596). Divorce and separation are not the only family changes that can prompt delinquency but instead, there are many changes to the family structure that can impact a juvenile’s chances of engaging in delinquency.

Incarcerated Parents

Due to parental absence and other factors that come with having incarcerated parents, juveniles whose parents are imprisoned are at a greater risk for delinquency. After conducting a study on the effects that parental incarceration had on young boys, Murray and Farrington (2005) found that “[s]eparation because of parental imprisonment was a strong predictor of antisocial and delinquent outcomes of boys through the life-course” (p. 1272). As previously discussed in this paper, strong parent-child relationships are important in preventing delinquency, but this relationship can be harmed when the parent is separated from the child due to incarceration. Additionally, parents who have committed crimes likely will pass on poor lessons to their children and fail to instill good values and behaviors in their children. Meldrum et al. said that “research provides evidence that parental criminal behavior is correlated with ineffective parenting and adolescent delinquency” (Meldrum et al., 2016, p. 1625). Children learn behaviors by watching their parents and others who are older than them. Paul wrote, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Cor. 15:33, NIV). If the parents are modeling criminal behavior, it is likely the children will follow suit. Thus, the incarceration of parents can promote juvenile delinquency.

The Future and Solutions to Delinquency

After reviewing the impacts that family dynamics have on juvenile delinquency, it is important to find ways to minimize the negative effect that poor family environments have on juveniles. Unless actions are taken to improve the environments that children grow up in, it is likely that juvenile delinquency will continue to occur at its current rate. Therefore, the next few sections will cover some possible ways to counteract poor family dynamics and environments that are negatively impacting juveniles.

Improving Family Dynamics

Since the family has such a great impact on juvenile delinquency, improving family dynamics and the home environment may help prevent juvenile delinquency. One way this could be done is through parent training programs. Meldrum et al. (2016) noted that, since “parental low self-control is associated with the quality of the family environment and parenting practices,” more emphasis should be placed on training parents to exhibit self-control and improve the family environment. They continued to write, “Although such programs may not be able to directly alter parental low self-control, they may serve to diminish the harmful effects that parental low self-control has on the family environment” (pp. 1638-1639). If parents are able to accept this training, they can greatly improve their family dynamics and help prevent juvenile delinquency. Proverbs 19:20 says, “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise”. Parental low self-control can be detrimental to juveniles and so if these effects can be lessened, juvenile delinquency may be decreased.

Mentoring

If parents are incapable of instilling good values and teaching their children good behaviors, then a mentor may be needed for the child. 1 Peter 5:2a and 5:5a says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them… In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders”. Mentors offer juveniles the support and guidance they may not receive from parents and this can, in turn, decrease the chance of delinquency. Siegel and Welsh (2017) recognized the impact of family on juveniles and how “inadequate family life may produce delinquent children,” but also noted that “it might be possible to prevent delinquency by offering a substitute” (The Cycle of Violence, para 4). Mentors can help teach and support juveniles in ways that their parents failed to. Learning good values and behaviors from a more responsible adult can help decrease the likelihood of one engaging in juvenile delinquency. Additionally, Kelley and Lee (2018) found that “[y]oung people do better in the long run and avoid future problems when they feel they matter to significant others, and natural mentors help accomplish this goal” (p. 327). Not only can mentors help teach juveniles valuable lessons, but they can also give them support and a sense of belonging that they did not receive from their parents.

Conclusion

The family environment has been shown to have a great impact on whether a juvenile will take part in delinquent acts. Factors such as the absence of the father, changes in the family structure, and the incarceration of the parents can put youths at a greater risk for juvenile delinquency. Actions such as training programs for parents and families as well as mentoring at-risk youths may help decrease the likelihood of juveniles engaging in delinquency. However, there are many factors, both external and internal, that lead to juvenile delinquency and simply fixing the family environment and dynamics will not eliminate juvenile delinquency completely.