Delinquency in Adolescence

Research Paper by Chris Lawson 12/7/2011


  1. Delinquency or delinquents refer to a person who commits a misdemeanor. At what point do people consider a child a delinquent. While delinquency does not refer to just one age group most people think of juvenile delinquents. Juvenile delinquency is considered to be the participation in illegal behavior by minors. Or in other words an adolescent, referring to a person who is undergoing adolescence; adolescence is characterized as a period of exploration and experimentation with a variety of roles and behaviors as youth attempt to define their identity. “Recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice (1997) indicate that approximately 2 million children and adolescents in the United States were involved in the juvenile court system in 1996 (Calhoun)”.  In this paper I will go over a few theories on what causes delinquency in adolescents, while also going over a few theories on how to solve behavioral problems.

                When it comes to theories on causes of teen delinquency ideas vary. For this paper I will focus on three in general, Moffitt’s Dual Taxonom, Sampson & Laub’s age- graded theory,  Attachment theory along with a few other. Teen delinquency is often seen as way for teens to communicate for what they are feeling. However Moffitt’s Dual Taxonom theory explains that acting out is just part of growing up; this theory divides people in to two types of categories those just going through a stage, and lifelong offenders.  Moffitt’s Dual Taxonom explains how “A small group engages in antisocial behavior of one sort or another at every life stage, whereas a larger group is antisocial only during adolescence. According to the theory of life-course-persistent antisocial behavior, children's neuropsychological problems interact cumulatively with their criminogenic environments across development, culminating in a pathological personality. According to the theory of adolescence-limited antisocial behavior, a contemporary maturity gap encourages teens to mimic antisocial behavior in ways that are normative and adjustive (Moffitt)”. With the idea of delinquents being broken into two categories the behaviors in which exhibited are understood easier. For Moffitt a teen delinquent was viewed as someone who was just going through a phase in their life. For teen delinquents their crimes often consisted of crimes symbolizing adult privileges and self-sufficiency, the low level crime can often be associated with the life style of the delinquent. For most adolescent limited time offenders, the crimes being committed were a way of showing their differences and communicating. Adolescent limited offenders’ criminal behavior usually stops around the age of 21, who often do not act along. For adolescent limited offenders they are often not the first one start the behavior; they may not have been the best behaved child in class, but they were however not the worst. Adolescent limited offenders have the tendency to break the law as group; often more boys than girls are found to be a part of these groups. Most of the youths who fall into this category are capable of growing out of their behaviors, if provided with the right type of setting. Criminal activity differs in lifelong offenders due to their ethological background; these kids were often raised around this type and know no better. While their behavior may be the same as limited offenders around the teen years, they however differ in that most lifelong offenders will continue their behavior after adolescent and into adulthood. Most often the crimes become worse. While background does have a huge role to play difference can also be seen in cognitive development. Lifelong offenders tend to have “short attention span, hyperactivity, inadequate emotional regulation, slow language development, low intelligence, early and severe malnutrition, autistic tendencies, maternal cigarette smoking and being the victim of sever child abuse- all of these correlate with later delinquency, although no single one of them necessarily produces it (Berger 499)”. While limited offenders “include having deviant friends; having few connections to school; living in a crowded, violent, unstable neighborhood; not having a job; using drugs and alcohol; and having close relatives (especially older siblings) in jail (Berger 499)”.  An adolescent is a time which kids experience more sudden and extreme emotions, which can lead to anger or sadness. These feelings are usually expressed with the help of a supportive family, friends, neighbors, and culture. However some teenagers’ emotions are unchecked and increased by their social context; leading to minor law-breaking and arrests.

                Many theories lay in the foundation that delinquency in adolescents is caused by the teens surroundings.  The theory of Samson and Laub states that delinquency is affected by the social context and not just on the characteristics of an individual. This theory can be broken down into three main components each referring to a different part in a person’s life. The first being the micro-level structural context, this refers to the informal family and school controls, which explains delinquency behaviors in adolescent and childhood.  The second being continuity in antisocial behavior, this lasting from childhood to adulthood in a variety of different life domains. Last is the informal social bond, to family and employment during adulthood explaining changes in criminality over the life span despite early childhood tendencies. According to Sampson and Laub’s aged theory adolescent delinquency is caused by peer groups, lack of attachment in a school setting, and involvement in a juvenile justice system. In Sampson and Laud theory delinquency is not seen as being lifelong or solely limited behavior, it has just been divided into the different sections of a person’s life. This theory focuses on the events and factors that lead to misdemeanor behaviors with a person; which means that behavior is not seen as a phase but as part of the individual.

                 While adolescent delinquency does depend on the individual setting and background, it is also affected the peer groups. Most delinquents exhibit antisocial behavior never becoming close to anyone. However friendship during the adolescent stage of development is very crucial; friendships can be related to a number of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional characteristics. Friends offer adolescents an opportunity to bond with people over common behaviors, dress, and appearance. Unlike nondelinquents, delinquents often have trouble bonding to people including both family and peers; “Research shows that delinquent friendships are shorter in duration as compared with those of nondelinquents, 2.5 vs. 3.17 years, and that they are more unstable (Pakiz et al.,1991).”. Most delinquents lack the social skills in order to survive in society, which causes them to resort to crime. This inability to bond with people or attachment disorder refers to the failure to form normal attachments with caregivers during childhood. Attachment during child hood is crucial, as the attachment theory explains; “Attachment theory is a theory (or group of theories) about the psychological tendency to seek closeness to another person, to feel secure when that person is present, and to feel anxious when that person is absent (Attachment theory)”. The attachment theory explains how humans are social beings that need to interact with each other in order to develop normally. By a child failing to make this connection it affects them psychologically for the rest of their life, which often explains their behavior in acting out in the adolescent years. While is capable of forming a normal emotional attachment to a friend. They are more often concerned with the negative and conflictual aspects of a friendship. This concern with the negative aspects of friendship causes misguided in trust in delinquents keeping them from truly bonding with a friend. All in which has a direct correlation to the behavior shown by delinquents.

                The type of environment that a child grows up affects how they will live their life. Adolescent delinquency is most often found in lower income neighborhoods in which, they are most often raised around this type of behavior.  The type of neighborhood and school a person went to can have tremendous effects on the type of behavior they exhibit in adolescent. Children’s behaviors often correlate with the type resources found in a school. For many adolescents, school is considered to a major stepping stone in life. However it can also be seen as an unpleasant challenge due to failure to meet academic or behavioral standards leading to frustration, loss of self-esteem and confidence, detachment and violent behavior.  These factors can result in a student acting out and holding aggression toward teachers which can long term effects on the child’s behaviors. School offers a place for children to connect and bond with other members of a group, without this children tend to grow isolated and act out. Another large impact in the life of adolescents is the neighborhood they grow up in. The neighborhood represents another opportunity for which the adolescent has the opportunity to grow and bond with other people. By becoming members of churches or other places of worship, the protective role of these places help in reducing the risk of adolescent violence. Adolescents are less likely to become involved in deviant or delinquent activities that encourage aggression if the local criminal element is at a minimal. When adolescents have the support of their community, they are more likely to participate in organizations and institutions that increase the opportunities for children to interact and become social. By children taking part in these social behaviors they are less likely to becoming anti-social resulting in delinquency behavior.

                A few theories that explain delinquency in adolescent are the attachment, Moffit’s Dual Taxonomy theory and the belief that delinquency is caused by social context. Delinquency can be looked at as either being a phase in an individual’s lifespan or as being a habit developed as a young child. While delinquency theories vary they have the common theme delinquency is directly related to an adolescents surrounding, friends, school, neighborhood, and family. The theories use this as a common theory because they view delinquency as a behavior which can be traced to either numerous factors or a single factor. The family and friends plays a huge role in the formation of delinquent behavior in adolescent because these are the elements which consist in someone developing healthy. According to each theory a delinquent can be seen as someone who is socially awkward or antisocial. Both theories idea of antisocial can be explained through the attachment theory and how the relationships formed early on affect how children view behaviors later on. While each theory may agree that delinquency is a form of communication linked directly to family and social context, they differ in their starting point for delinquency. While Sampson and Laub’s theory thinks of delinquency as one group, Moffitt’s Dual Taxonom theory breaks it down into two different types of groups. By breaking down into two categories Moffitt’s Dual taxonom offers more of an understanding to the idea of delinquency being a form of communication. While Sampson and Laub’s theory leads people to the idea that there is no changing a person once they start in behaviors considered to be misdemeanors. While Delinquency is a broad topic in adolescent these theories help explain the causes behind delinquency in adolescents. Since delinquency is considered to be a behavior it can be handled by using behavior management techniques. Just like there are many theories for why delinquency is caused, one can also find many theories on handle to behaviors.

                Delinquency is seen as resulting from lack of attachment in youths.  This attachment disorder that is found in adolescent are often found to be directly related the type of parenting. While delinquency may be caused by many things, when it comes to handling parenting style is crucial. Parents are considered to be one of the most influential factors in a child life, often deciding how they will be raised; if a parent has a neglect parenting style then the child with have much harm done to them. Parenting style consists of authoritarian, authorative, permissive, uninvolved, and knowledge based. With different parenting style emerges different methods for dealing with children and their behaviors.        Authoritarian style is consistent with the behaviorist philosophy of education. This style is set up more like a dictatorship in that the adult makes the rules, no questioning, rewards and punishments. Authoritarian parenting consist of being very strict often causing the child to act out and rebel against the parent. While this style is most common it can also be the most harmful when used in extremes. Authoritarian parents use the idea of rewards and punishments as a form of discipline. What this means is that in order to have the child obey them, they either use the threat of punishments: grounding, spanking, etc. or rewards: candy, money, etc. In this style the adolescent relies on the authority figure always being around to tell them what to do, this causes for children not knowing how to survive by themselves, and falling into the wrong crowed. When the extremes are put into effect abuse often becomes part of the picture, resulting in the child turning to delinquency. Abuse can refer to either emotional, sexual, physical, or neglect all effecting the child’s cognitive growth. While authoritarian way of handling delinquency behavior often causes for the child to fell more aggression, leading toward lifelong delinquency.      The next parenting style is authoritative next to knowledge based; authoritative is considered to one of the best methods. Authoritative parenting is seen as being more democratic. Allowing for the child to have a voice and offering more of a guidance approach to raising the child. Authoritative parenting allows for the child to have a say in what is going on in their life, often making them feel connected and closer to their family.  Authoritative parents’ form of discipline usually offers a way for the child to notice their wrongs and learn from it. Dealing with delinquency in this manner causes for less aggression held by the child, resorting in them communicating with words rather than through violence. Since the child begins to feel less aggression this can lead to the end of their delinquent ways. When dealing with delinquent behavior the authoritative approach is one of the best.       Another type of parenting style is permissive. This style is one of the worst along with authoritarian. The permissive style is compatible with the maturationist philosophy of education, with its belief in time as the best teacher. Permissive parents usually hold no responsibility leaving all the power to the child. Permissive parents allow for their child to do whatever they want, in which when the child resorts to delinquency ways the parent holds no responsibility for them. Permissive parents style of discipline is none at all, permissive parents do not discipline their child; this makes it where the child does now learn the right from wrong. Permissive parenting is the worst because it does not deal with delinquency, the parents act if nothing is happen, and is often disconnected form the child. The last parenting style is knowledge based or KBP, this is parenting style is considered to be the best. KBP is more centered around guiding children, and making teachable moments. What this means is that KBP sees a behavior and thinks how they can have the child learn and keep from repeating it. Unlike the rest of the parenting styles KBP does not use punishment, instead it uses discipline. So when it comes to delinquent adolescent KBP views the behaviorally differently. First of KBP looks at the whole child, which means paying attention to the three domains, cognitive, biosocial, psychosocial; by looking the at the whole child the authority figure is able to see what is causing the behavior. After realizing what is causing the behavior KBP then tries to solve it, by having the adolescent learn from the situation, so they do not repeat the behavior. KBP does not only aim to stop delinquency it aims to fix it and keep the behavior from happening again. In KBP the adolescent feels connected to the family and will learn how to create long lasting relationships, leading them away from delinquency. When handling delinquency KBP is considered the best because not only does it stop the behavior, but it can also prevent it. The type of parenting style that a child is raised by can have serious effects. Affecting rather the child becomes a delinquent all the way to if they feel the need to remain a delinquent.

                In understanding delinquency as a behavioral trait, it is important that one understands the differences between acting out and normal development. Just like at any age teens are still growing and much of their behavior is correlated to the healthy development of their brain and body. During this time teens begin puberty which can have all sorts of effects on adolescent’s body both physically and mentally. Hormones in an adolescent become affected by puberty causing, sudden anger, sadness, and lust. These sudden feelings in teens can often cause them to act in ways that adults do not understand and misinterpret as delinquency. Such as sleeping all day and staying up all night. Along with developments in the biosocial area, adolescents are also developing cognitively also. During this stage of adolescence, emotions reactions quicken and memories endure, which means that teens tend to take irrational risk factors and enjoy intense sensory experiences. To an adult such behaviors are seen as foolish and reckless, but for a teen these types of behaviors are part of developing normally. Adolescence is a time in which a teen goes through various changes, often not understood by the adults. These changes can however count for some of their behavior and the way they think. So while looking at delinquency it is important to notice the difference in an adolescent developing normally and acting out.

                After reading this paper one should understand who is considered to be an adolescent delinquent,  cause for delinquency,  methods on how to deal with delinquency, and then an adolescent themselves. Delinquency in adolescent refers to the ages between 11 and 18, during this time adolescents often communicate by acting out. While delinquency is a serious problem it can viewed as behavior which can be resolved if the source of the problem is found. Most often this problem is due to antisocial behavior which coexists with how the adolescent was treated as a child and their surroundings. Rather not delinquency continues, like any behavior depends on the discipline method; Permissive, Authoritarian, Authoritative, and Knowledge Based. It is not only crucial that one understands the cause for delinquency in adolescences, but also what an adolescent is themselves.


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