What Causes Juvenile Delinquency?

Contributed by: Ilanna Sharon Mandel

Psychologists, sociologists and criminologists the world over have long debated the various causes of delinquency. This paper focuses on some of the causes the have been and are considered viable from a theoretical and practical perspective.   Some of these theorists point to the seminal experience of a childhood trauma especially child abuse, either of a physical or sexual nature.

 Others indicate that race, gender and socio-economic conditions (especially poverty) are of prime importance in a young person’s life. There is also the factor of peer influences. Young people are especially vulnerable in their early teen years and subject to a great deal of peer pressure to conform to certain values, norms and behaviors. Delinquency continues to be a salient topic today and we continue to search for answers to its causative factors.


Juvenile delinquency continues to confound a broad range of behavioral specialists the world over. Some point to child abuse as a key factor while others suggest that child abuse alone is not a predictor of delinquency. There are some theorists who indicate that socio-economic conditions combined with peer influences can be an enormous factor in the development of delinquent behavior. This thesis will address some of the different theories and their attempts to explain why some young people fall into delinquent behavior.

Peer Influences  

Hoge, Andrews, and Leschied tested three hypotheses with respect to delinquent behavior. They worked with a sample of 338 youth in their study. The first theory centers on parent-child relationships, the second on peer influences and the third on attitudes towards authority. It is clear from the beginning of the article that the authors acknowledge that not one but a combination of factors are the strongest predictor of delinquent behavior. They note that familial relationships combined with an association with delinquent peers offers the highest predictor for delinquency (1994, p. 547). Although it might be tempting to assume that parental abuse of their children would be the conclusion here in terms of familial influence, the authors note this is not necessarily the case. There are parents who give poor directions to children, fail to structure their behavior and do not reward or punish appropriately. “…our prediction was that the highest levels of antisocial behavior would occur where poor attachment between parent and child was combined with poor controls.” (Hoge, Andrews, and Leschied, 1994, p. 547).  

Wong’s research focuses on the notion of social bonds as a means of encouraging delinquent behavior. She points out that young people who associate with groups or individuals pursuing positive goals and commitments have a far less chance of engaging in delinquent behavior. “In contrast, there are activities that lack long-term objectives, lack a sense of commitment and responsibility, and involve casual or volatile relationships. For example, activities such as smoking and drinking do not serve long-term objectives” (2005, p. 322).   Her theory suggests that the more time spent involved in behavior that has no sense of direction or long-term commitment to it (such as watching television), the greater the likelihood that one will begin to engage in delinquent behaviors. This is especially true when the people around you are encouraging the lack of long-term goals or commitments.  

Vitaro, Brendgen, and Tremblay support the theory that spending time with deviant friends exerts a great deal of pressure on a young person to adopt the same behaviors. “The Peer Influence/Socialization model (Elliott et al., 1985) proclaims that weak bonding to conventional peers leads to association with deviant friends, which in turn is responsible for initiation or aggravation of delinquent behaviors” (2002, p. 314). Even though this may be true, the authors also suggest that the presence of even one non-deviant friend may be able to mitigate some of the influence from friends who engage in deviant behavior. Each individual brings their own norms and values and the friendship is unique in that respect. “However, deviant peers also amplified the link between disruptive behaviors and later delinquency for early starters” (Vitaro, Brendgen, and Tremblay. 2002, p. 316.). These authors also found an interesting result from their study in that if a person’s best friend engages in delinquent behaviors, the person will have a tendency towards delinquent behaviors too even if they have friends who engage in positive behaviors. Their model suggests that the bond between best friends is often so strong it can resist other (often mitigating) influences (Vitaro, Brendgen, and Tremblay. 2002, p. 325).   In this study they found that while parental influence can also be effective, sometimes once the bond with a friend is established, it is difficult even for those youth with a strong parental attachment to break the cycle of delinquency (Ibid).  

Family Influence  

Vitaro, Brendgen, and Tremblay suggest that those theorists who believe in the peer influence model also tend to support the belief that family has a strong influence on the development of positive or delinquent behavior. They state:

Some researchers used measures such as parental control, discipline, or supervision (i.e., monitoring), whereas other researchers focused on the affective nature of the parent–child relationship (i.e., attachment, closeness, acceptance, and rejection). A number of studies examined the moderating role of each dimension separately with conflicting results  

(2002, p. 315).  


Matherne and Thomas note that delinquency is most definitely on the rise in America today. The number of youths who run away from home and the number of drop-outs are increasing every year. They agree that family influence is one of the predictors in the development of delinquent behavior. In fact, they go so far as to state that family influence can be much more powerful than the influence of one’s peers (2001, p. 670). This suggests that a positive family influence with strong emotional bonding and positive communication strategies can mitigate the influence of deviant peers in a young person’s life. They clarify this by stating that the family type is also extremely important and children/youth from non-traditional families (single parent, reconstituted) have a far greater chance of engaging in delinquent behavior than children/youth from traditional families. “For nontraditional families, there was a significant relationship between delinquency and cohesion” (Ibid).  

With respect to traditional versus non-traditional families, Matherne and Thomas go on to say that one of the reasons why children/youth from traditional families may be less likely to engage in delinquency is the presence of family resources. “With more resources, traditional families may provide a more balanced home environment and devote more time and energy to their children. For example, traditional families may allocate more time for family interaction, such as communication” (2002, p. 370). They also state that good parenting skills can also serve as a means to prevent juvenile delinquency (Ibid).   However, the authors also note that any conclusions from their study should be understood only within the context of research already conducted on the subject. They were limited to working with youth and parents from only one school.  

In terms of family influence, there may be some validity to the notion that non-traditional families have a more difficult time raising children. There is often the problem of being a single parent which means economic resources are stretched to the limit and the parent likely has far less time to spend with their children. A single parent also has the added pressure of trying to provide emotional support for all the children in addition to being the economic support. Reconstituted families can experience difficulties in the arena of communications and emotional support. Children may not relate well to a step-parent and vice versa. There may also be hard feelings around the issues of divorce and lack of, or limited access to a parent who is deeply missed.   These factors must surely be considered in terms of understanding the ways in which non-traditional families function.  

Some researchers suggest that just as effective parenting can have a positive influence on young people, so the opposite is true. Parents who are poor communicators, unable to establish strong emotional ties and/or provide little to no support for children risk seeing them engage in delinquent behavior. There is also the more extreme form of dysfunctional parenting with those who engage in illegal or criminal behavior. “In studies comparing them to demographically matched controls, children of substance abusers exhibit more behavioral and emotional problems, less socially adaptive behavior, higher rates of psychiatric disorder, and greater use of illicit drugs” (Keller, et al., 2002, p. 399).  

These same researchers suggest that there may be some similarities between children whose parents are substance abusers and children of divorced parents. While the parents themselves do not exhibit the same characteristics, the children do. The largest factor is the disruption in their lives. Children of divorced parents often face emotional conflicts regarding their allegiance to either one or both of their parents. They also face a difficulty in scheduling time with their parents and the adjustment to new influences when their biological parents remarry. The authors state the following: “…children and adolescents who experience family disturbances due to divorce and remarriage typically demonstrate higher levels of aggressive, defiant, and delinquent behavior. One explanation is that marital breakup produces conditions and consequences that have an adverse effect on children” (Keller, et al., 2002, p. 400).  

In addition to disruptions due to a restructuring of their family children/youth may also have to cope with different parenting styles. The step-parent may be far more strict than they are accustomed to which could cause an emotional backlash on the part of the child. The opposite could also be true. In order to compensate for disrupting their lives, a stepparent may try too hard to ‘be their friend’ rather than being another adult in the home. Their parenting style may be too loose and the child/youth will start to experience a lack of structure, or an easing of the rules. Either way could prove confusing and manifest itself in stress-related behavior. If one adds the component of substance abuse by either or both parents, the results could be disastrous for the children. “…effects from an unresolved initial divorce may be amplified by each succeeding disruption. Chronic family instability would presumably be harder to overcome for children of substance abusers who also confront multiple other risks” (Keller, et al., 2002, p. 401).  

While it is not surprising that research demonstrates the vulnerability for delinquent behavior by children and youth of parents who are substance abusers it is interesting that this same vulnerability exists for children and youth in other disruptive situations. According to the research parental disruption is one of the key predictors for delinquent behavior” (Keller, Catalano, Haggerty, and Fleming, 2002, p. 411).   These disruptions can be varied in nature from divorce, to parental depression (other serious illnesses), inconsistent parenting, constantly moving from one place to another, and at least one parent committing a crime (Ibid). The conclusion here is that lack of stability and consistency in the lives of children leaves them at great risk for delinquent behavior. Another interesting conclusion from their study was that children can handle adversity as long as they have at least one stable and consistent parent (Keller, et al., 2002, p. 414).   This provides at least some evidence that a loving, supportive, stable and consistent parent can serve as a mitigating factor in terms of their child developing delinquent behavior.  

Clark and Shields studied the effects of family communication on patterns of delinquency. As a general concept, effective family communications could easily be understood as having a positive influence on the children and adults. When parents are able to communicate with their children in compassionate, supportive and non-judgmental tones it does seem more likely that the children will feel understood and accepted. This pattern of communication is more likely to lead to a positive self-image and a higher sense of self-esteem and serve as a buffer against any negative, external factors. Some would suggest that it is not only the communication itself that is of high importance but the ‘focus’ of the communication (Clark and Shields, 1997, p. 81).  

Two communication styles were part of the study — open communication and problem communications. Both types of communication proved to be directly related to delinquent behavior. Those students who engaged in more open communication and perceived they had the ability to discuss problems with either or both parents were at significantly less risk for delinquent behavior. The study appears to support the assumption that it is not only discussing issues with one’s children that’s of paramount importance but the focus of the communication. Children need to believe and experience the ability to openly communicate with their parents. This provides an experiential support for them to realize that whatever they are experiencing in their lives (positive or negative); they have the ability to discuss this with their parents. “While some differences between open and problem communication and its relationship to delinquency exist, the results are clear in suggesting that “open lines of communication” between the parent and the child are important in the prevention of delinquency” (Clark and Shields, 1997, p. 87).  

Race as a Factor in Delinquent Behavior

There is probably no factor in peoples’ lives that is as deeply contested as that of the issue of race. The suggestion that race may be a factor in the development of delinquent behavior is one that must be considered carefully. There are researchers today who would suggest that race may not be the issue but rather racism is. Edward Pabon suggests that part of the problem in understanding race as a factor in juvenile delinquency is the way in which certain youths are perceived. “Politicians and the public view youth crime and violence through a prism of race and social class” (p.5).   He also points to statistics which demonstrate that unfortunately minority youth may be a small portion of the population but they represent the majority of youth involved in delinquent behavior. “Although minority youth constituted about 32% of the youth population in the country in 1995, they represented 68% of the juvenile population in secure detention…” (p. 6).  

Pabon states that while White people may feel concerned about the connection between race and crime, minority communities are even more worried. His research in the Hispanic communities demonstrates there is considerable concern over the rise in juvenile delinquency among Hispanic youth (1998, p. 7).

A great deal of the literature on race and juvenile suggests a connection between race and the juvenile justice system. The question that is often raised is; ‘does the juvenile justice system treat boys and girls of color in a less equitable manner than White boys and girls involved with the juvenile justice system? It is a difficult question to be sure. A detailed report from one California County (San Mateo) points out that there may be a disparity not in who is committing delinquent acts but in who is being detained for delinquent acts. This goes back to the original premise of this section in that it is extremely difficult to discuss race and delinquency without understanding the construct of race in the U.S. The issue of race is fraught with the history of slavery, the need to fight for civil rights and the continued perception of oppression of people of color in the U.S.  

One of the problems in determining race as a factor in delinquency is to understand the ways in which people of color feel in America today. Many people of color continue to feel as if they lack equality in general. Therefore, it is impossible to discuss race and delinquency without acknowledging this fact. The report on San Mateo County states clearly that youth of color are being detained at a much higher rate than White youth. The researchers also acknowledge the difficulty of tackling that particular subject.   “Measuring the disproportionate confinement of youth of color and discussing the impact of race and ethnicity in general are difficult due to the fact that measuring “race” is itself a discipline fraught with inconsistencies” (Morris, et al, 2003). .

This report goes on to suggest that it is possible youth of color are being detained at a higher rate not because they commit delinquent acts at a higher rate but because of police practices, ideas about youth of color and delinquency and also the neighborhoods where some youth of color live may be subject to greater scrutiny. “Researchers indicate that youth of color are “disadvantaged” in not having a commensurate level of access to mental health services and private mental health facilities as white youth, and that race is a factor in determining whether a juvenile is placed in a juvenile justice or in a mental health facility” (Morris, et al., 2003, p. 10).

The report states that it is not only African American youth who are over-represented in the juvenile system but also Latino and Hispanic youth. Some of the factors related to this over-representation are the fact that both Hispanic/Latino and African American youth still have higher rates of dropping out of school than their White peers, youth of color are being referred to probation in higher numbers, many youth of color are not successful in their standardized tests, and there is a problem with under-representation of teachers of color in schools. Children and youth of color continue to face considerable barriers in the U.S. and these barriers may be one of the reasons why they are over-represented in the juvenile court system. However, it is yet to be determined if they are actually engaging in delinquent acts at higher rates than their White peers.  

Self-Esteem as a Factor in Delinquent Behavior

Sociological Explanations

There is evidence in the research to demonstrate that low self-esteem may also be one of the contributing factors to delinquent behavior. However, one must be careful to understand how self-esteem factors into delinquent behavior for not all children and youth who experience low self-esteem necessarily fall into this pattern of behavior. One specific study points to the fact that Kaplan’s Self-Derogation Theory of Delinquency has been the primary tool used in the research on the connection between low self-esteem and delinquent behavior. One critique of the Kaplan theory notes that it is based primarily on the assumption that people want to feel good about themselves and will engage in behavior that will boost their self-esteem.  

When low self-esteem is experienced, individuals are motivated to take action to restore positive self-regard. This self-esteem motive is evident during adolescence, when most boys and girls develop favorable views of self within the confines of commitment to conventional reference groups (e.g., family relationships and mainstream friendship networks). (Mason, 2001, p. 84).  

The notion that people want and need to feel good about themselves is not particularly new. In Kaplan’s theory however, young people are emotionally vulnerable. When young people experience rejection by their peers, some react by seeking out deviant peers in order to be accepted by people their own age. “…boys and girls who are rejected by mainstream reference groups will experience lowered self-esteem, decreased commitment to the reference group, and increased motivation to establish deviant peer associations based on involvement in delinquent behavior” (Mason, 2001, p. 84).  

Kaplan’s theory also states that when individuals feel rejected by peers, there is an initial sense of elation when they are accepted by other young people their age even if they are engaging in delinquent behavior. The theory is predicated on the notion that young people are not necessarily seeking to engage in delinquent behavior but rather acceptance by their peers. Mason (2001) suggests that the research connecting self-esteem to delinquency has been weak and filled with some contradictions in its results. Yet, Mason is not ready to abandon the research. Instead, he seeks to modify the ways in which research is conducted. Mason (2001) suggests using latent growth curve modeling as a means of studying the connection between self-esteem and delinquent behavior. ). “Latent growth models are unique in that they incorporate information about the means, as well as the variances and covariances, of measured variables. These models, therefore, focus on both the group and individual levels of analysis” (p. 87).

Mason implemented a research study using latent growth curve modeling to support the hypothesis that participating in delinquent behavior will have the effect of enhancing a young person’s sense of self-esteem. “Sub group analyses revealed that delinquency was self-enhancing for boys initially low in self-esteem, but not for boys initially high in self-esteem. This is consistent with both theory and past research…” (Mason, 2001, p. 93).   Mason goes on to suggest that by using this research model, it is possible to support Kaplan’s theory “…that involvement in delinquency may be an adaptive or defensive response to feelings of low self-regard, which serves to elevate levels of global self-esteem” (Ibid).  

Mason suggests that this area of research requires more in-depth studies on the development of low self-esteem in young people. Mason also states that there are limitations to the study he conducted. The demographics of his study included only White boys from a higher socioeconomic status. The author admits that these demographics severely limit the applicability of this research, but it represents a start in the right direction.  

Trauma and Delinquency

The literature on self-esteem and delinquency may not be entirely conclusive; there is a plethora of research to demonstrate that traumatic incidents in the life of young people correlates with delinquent behavior. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has conducted research on the relationship between traumatic events in a young person’s life and delinquent behavior. A sad and unfortunate reality of life in our modern world is that far too many children and young people are abused and traumatized every day. Some of these abuses are infrequence, whereas others occur on a regular basis. The abuse may vary in nature as physical, sexual, or psychological, or as a combination. There is no doubt that whatever the nature of the abuse; it can have long lasting and profound effects on a young person’s life. Another truly sad fact of childhood trauma is that it often involves someone the child has come to know and trust such as a parent, sibling, babysitter, relative, caregiver, or teacher. This violation of trust only multiplies the effect of the trauma or abuse.

“Numerous studies over the past 10 years have shown a clear relationship between youth victimization and a variety of problems in later life, including mental health problems, substance abuse, impaired social relationships, suicide, and delinquency” (Siegfried, Ko, & Kelley, 2004, p. 5).   The correlation between the abuse of young people and the development of serious problems in life is not a surprising one and may turn out to be one of the most significant factors in the development of delinquent behavior. One of the interesting facts that emerges from this piece of research is that the violence or trauma need not only take place in a young person’s home. The research suggests that even if a person lives in a violent neighborhood (sometimes referred to as a war zone), it is possible to be affected by the violence.   Another factor suggested by this research is that adolescents are capable of understanding concepts such as fairness, justice and appropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior. Children are not capable of understanding these concepts and so adolescents are affected differently by traumatic and abusive incidents (Siegfried, Ko, & Kelley, 2004).  

Data is available on the correlation between delinquent behavior and traumatic or abusive incidents through the National Survey of Adolescents (Kilpatrick et al., 2003b). The survey reveals that over 47% of boys who are sexually assaulted will go on to commit delinquent acts, almost 20% of girls who are sexually assaulted go on to commit delinquent acts, 46% of boys who have been physically assaulted commit delinquent acts, and almost 30% of girls who are physically assaulted will commit an act of delinquency   The research does indicate that boys and girls who have been neither physically or sexually assaulted also commit delinquent acts but at a significantly lower rate than their peers who have been assaulted in some manner (Siegfried, Ko, & Kelley, 2004).

The World Youth Report cites interesting evidence and research into the connection between trauma and violence in a child or young person’s life and committing acts of delinquency. The report notes that an interesting facet of delinquent behavior is that it is more commonly committed in groups rather than as individuals. While this does not prove the theory around peer influences, it does seem to support it to some degree. Individuals who seek acceptance among their peers and find it with delinquent peers tend to feel as if they belong and committing acts of delinquency is easier to do so within the framework of the group. “Statistical data in many countries show that delinquency is largely a group phenomenon; between two-thirds and three-quarters of all juvenile offences are committed by members of various groups. Even those juveniles who commit offences alone are likely to be associated with groups” (“Juvenile Delinquency, 2004, p. 191). This report also points out that it is now more imperative than ever to study the connections between trauma and delinquency as juvenile delinquency is on the rise in many countries. In addition to understanding why young people fall into delinquency, it is important for researchers to focus on how to prevent delinquency and how society can support and help to rehabilitate those who have fallen into delinquent behavior (“Juvenile Delinquency, 2004).  

The U.S. Department of Justice has been monitoring issues related to delinquency for many years now. A 2001 report indicated that rates of juvenile delinquency in the U.S. have gone down but there is still a significant amount of concern over this issue in society. This report states very clearly that maltreatment of children and youth can have a direct relationship with the development of delinquent behavior. The report states: “The prevalence of childhood abuse or neglect among delinquent and criminal populations is substantially greater than that in the general population” (Wiebush, Freitag, & Baird. 2001, p. 1). The report also raises an interesting question; ‘why is it that most children who are maltreated do not engage in delinquent behavior?’ Although the report indicates that rate of delinquency is on the decline, the rate of child abuse and neglect is on the rise   (Wiebush, Freitag, & Baird, 2001).  

This report goes on to state that one of key factors in the difference between those children who go on to engage in delinquent behavior are less likely to have received appropriate intervention in a timely manner. The problem of child abuse and neglect is a serious one and it is unlikely that agencies spread out over such a large country as the U.S. provide the same services. Each state has its own criteria for training, certification and employment. It is possible to suggest that one of the problems might be the availability of prevention and support services in the area where the child lives. The report states clearly that many agencies providing these kinds of services are “…overwhelmed by heavy workloads…” (Wiebush, Freitag, & Baird, 2001, p. 5). Given the fact that agencies can only do much within their mandate, it is also possible to assume that decision have to be made about which cases to intervene with and when it is possible for them to provide support.  


The factors which have been discussed in this paper are family influences, peer influences, race/ethnicity, self-esteem and the presence of trauma, abuse and/or violence in a child or youth’s life. The unfortunate reality is that many of these factors overlap. A young person who lives in a difficult environment may also have low self-esteem and face many barriers in life at a very young age. Researchers seem to agree on one thing and that is delinquent behavior is very complex and there is no one reason why some children/youth commit delinquent acts while others are able to marshal their resources and live a positive life.  

The research does not seem to address why some children/youth experience difficult families, trauma or abuse, low self-esteem and yet still resist engaging in delinquent behavior. There is a strong need to understand the reasons why these factors affect some children and not others. The research also suggests that there may be a racial bias in terms of youth of color. There may be assumptions that have been made over time about who commits delinquent acts and who engages in more appropriate behavior. The studies selected for this paper also indicate a strong need for further research. The continued presence of delinquent behavior among youth people is definitely a cause for concern and we must find ways to thoroughly understand it and prevent it.  


Clark, R. D., & Shields, G. (1997).   Family communication and delinquency. Adolescence, 32(125), 81-89.

Hoge, R. D., Andrews, D. A., & Leschied, A. W. (1994).   Tests of three hypotheses regarding the predictors of delinquency. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 22(5), 547-557.  

Keller, at al. (2002).   Parent figure transitions and delinquency and drug use among early adolescent children of substance abusers.   Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 28(3), 399-423.

Mason, A. (2001). Self-Esteem and delinquency revisited (again): A test of Kaplan’s self-derogation theory of delinquency using latent growth curve modeling. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30(1), 83-101.  

Matherne, M, & Thomas, A. (2001). Family environment as a predictor of adolescent delinquency.   Adolescence, 36(144), 655-664.  

Morris, et al. (2003). “An assessment of disproportionate minority confinement in San Mateo County.” Prepared for the San Mateo Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Commission.  

http://www.co.sanmateo.ca.us/vgn/images/portal/cit_609/132205523NCCD_final_%20report.pdf   (accessed 28 April 2008).  

Pabon, E. (1998). Hispanic adolescent delinquency and the family: a discussion of sociocultural influences.   Adolescence, 33(132), 941-954.  

Siegfried, C. B., Ko, S. J., & Kelley, A. (2004). “Victimization and Juvenile Offending.” National Child Traumatic Stress Network.  

http://www.nctsnet.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/edu_materials/victimization_juvenile_offending.pdf   (accessed 28 April 2008).  

Vitaro, F., Brendgen, M., & Tremblay, R. E. (2000).   Influence of deviant friends on delinquency: searching for moderator variables.   Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28(4), 313-322.

Wiebush, R., Freitag, R., & Bair, C. (n.d.). “Preventing delinquency through improved child protection services.” U. S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.    http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/187759.pdf delinquency2 (accessed 28 April 2008).

William, J. H., et al. (1999). Racial differences in risk factors for delinquency and substance use among adolescents. Social Work Research, 23(4), 241-263.  

World Youth Report. (2003).”Juvenile delinquency.”    http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/documents/ch07.pdf .



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  2. what can the government, family members and members of the community do, to ensure that juvenile delinquency decreases or stops?

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