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During 1991, alone, adolescents under the age of eighteen made up 17.2 percent of all arrests for violent crimes (Salts, Lindholm, Goddard, & Duncan, 1995). Watts & Ellis (1993) found that antecedents to drug and alcohol use/abuse happens before the adolescent reaches high school. So, what factors drive adolescents to act out in such delinquent behaviors as skipping school, threatening fellow adolescents with guns or other weapons, and drug and alcohol use? This is a very interesting question that seems to have a lot of research to help in trying to answer it. The variety of explanations for such delinquent behaviors as listed above include lack of family structure, relational problems with peers, environmental influences, as well as many more. Some researchers have attempted to explore adolescent delinquency with such theories as Coercion Theory and Classic Strain Theory. According to Cashwell & Vacc (1996), Coercion Theory suggests that the family environment of an adolescent influences their interpersonal style, which will then reflect on their selection of peers. Agnew & Brezina (1997) found Classic Strain Theory to imply that the central goal for adolescents, or the population in general, in the United States is financial success and/or the attainment of middle-class status. Even though there are some differences between races in research of adolescent delinquency, I will only be focusing on research that pertains to white adolescents. I will, however, highlight some differences between the sexes (male and female only) and ages of the adolescents.
In attempts to try and understand factors that lead adolescents to delinquent behavior, some researchers have looked at the family structure and functioning. Cashwell & Vacc (1996) found that the largest direct effect on adolescent delinquency is low family cohesion. Family cohesion is the degree to which members are emotionally separate from or involved with the family (Burr, Day, & Bahr, 1993). This study found that adolescents who live in a cohesive family environment are less likely to be involved with delinquent peers (Cashwell & Vacc, 1996). Another study found that higher levels of family conflict are predictive of greater levels of violence in the adolescent (Salts et al., 1995). Researchers in this study also found that the time adolescents spend away from home and their family, the higher the levels of delinquency (Salts et al., 1995). Finally, Rowe & Flannery (1994) found a direct positive correlation between levels of parental affection and spontaneity that is linked with delinquency.
The second factor pointing to adolescent delinquency is relational problems with peers. A particular study done by Agnew & Brezina (1997) predicted that problems with peers would affect female delinquency more so than male delinquency. However, the data that they collected in their study showed little evidence to support this hypothesis. They did find, however, that females who spend adequate amounts of time with boys are more likely to be involved in delinquency (Agnew & Brezina, 1997). These girls, who spend so much time with male peer groups, are introduced to the more delinquent behaviors of males, and therefore, have more opportunity to engage in these acts of deviance (Agnew & Brezina, 1997). Poor peer relations were also found to be the biggest predictor of fighting among females (Agnew & Brezina, 1997). According to this same study, males having same and opposite sex friends also have slightly higher levels of delinquency (Agnew & Brezina, 1997).
Another study conducted by Rowe & Flannery (1994), found that more positive peer relations were linked to higher levels of delinquency. Why would positive peer relations motivate adolescents to more delinquent activity? This particular study found that adolescents, who spend lots of time with their peer groups, have more opportunity to engage in delinquent activity (Rowe & Flannery, 1994). We usually believe that antisocial adolescents would be more involved in delinquent behavior than socially involved individuals; however, these researchers speculate that they are generally involved in defying social conformity instead of delinquent behavior (Rowe & Flannery, 1994).
Another explanation of adolescent delinquency is environmental influences. In one study, researchers found that of 836 adolescents (with a mean age of 13.5 years) interviewed, 11 percent said that they had used an illicit drug at least once, 39 percent had drank alcohol in the past year, 18 percent had smoked tobacco, and 60 percent had some dating experience with adolescents of the opposite gender (Rowe & Flannery, 1994). This study looked at factors such as value of academic achievement, parental encouragement of academic achievement, and the child’s ability to control their emotions. Rowe & Flannery (1994) found that compared to peer relations and negative emotionality, delinquency proneness accounted for four times more delinquencies.
Another study confirmed some of the same findings of Rowe & Flannery (1994). This particular study found that delinquent behavior of the adolescent is associated with personal characteristics as well as their family, peer groups, school, teachers, and neighborhood (Salts et al., 1995). They also examined a hypothesis that low self-esteem is a significant predictor of adolescent deviance. This study, as well as others, found that delinquents have lower self-esteem than non-delinquents, but they were unable to conclude that the low self-esteem caused delinquency or vice versa (Salts et al., 1995). In comparing three different school settings (inner city, suburban, and rural), researchers found that school location explained approximately 2 percent of delinquency and problem school behavior explained about 11 percent (Salts et al., 1995). They also reported that the rural school had the lowest amount of violence, overall. Finally, this particular study also found that predictors of general delinquent behavior are also major predictors of violent behavior in white males (Salts et al., 1995).
The next topic is drug and alcohol abuse among adolescents. This obviously seems to be a huge predictor of adolescent delinquency. I have used some statistics and facts in the above paragraphs that point to the significance of drug and alcohol use among delinquent adolescents. I would like to discuss another study of drug use among adolescents. A study was conducted about all females, grades seven through twelve in a wealthy suburb in the U.S. They used delinquent activities such as selling drugs, theft, threatening someone with a weapon, and vandalism as their measures (Watts & Ellis, 1993). In this study, researchers found an increase in delinquent activity over grade levels, with the exception of twelfth grade (Watts & Ellis, 1993). In the twelfth grade, the girls reported less delinquent activity than the other grade levels. Girls in the eleventh grade, then, reported the highest level of delinquency. The females in this study reported lower levels of delinquency than males their age, but the researchers were surprised by the number of the girls who had committed vandalism (Watts & Ellis, 1993).
Another predictor of adolescent delinquency that, I found, is not really explored as frequently, is sexual abuse. There was only one article found in my research that examined the effects of sexual abuse on delinquency. Also, this study only focused on females. Watts & Ellis (1993) found that female risk of alcoholism is significantly effected by sexual abuse in childhood or early adolescence. This study found an obvious difference in the drug and alcohol use among girls who had been sexually molested and those who had not (Watts & Ellis, 1993). The females that participated were in grades seven through twelve. The adolescent girls in the lower grade levels that were sexually abused were more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use than girls in the higher grade levels who had also been abused (Watts & Ellis, 1993). Even though all these findings were discovered, the researchers stated that there is a significant but weak positive correlation between sexual abuse and drug and alcohol use as well as other delinquent behaviors (Watts & Ellis, 1993).
Next, I wanted to point out some differences that have been brought up in the research that I came across. Although Agnew & Brezina (1997) pointed out in one of their studies, that there was little evidence that relational problems with peers affects females more than males, they did find evidence to support that females do put greater significance on relationships. They found that females are most generally in dependent positions, therefore, making and maintaining positive relationships a very important part of their being (Agnew & Brezina, 1997). Males are thought to be more interested in monetary success, while females are thought to be more involved in relationships (Agnew & Brezina, 1997). In this same study, Agnew & Brezina (1997) found that in along with stressors that females share with males, adolescent females are subject to certain distinctive stressors. Therefore, females have higher levels of depression as well as other psychological problems than males (Agnew & Brezina, 1997).
Adding to the differences between the sexes, males report engaging in more delinquent activity than females (Rowe & Flannery, 1994). In a study of all adolescent males, researchers reported that violent behavior increased with age (Salts et al., 1995). In reference to the above paragraphs, this was also the case in the study involving all adolescent females (Watts & Ellis, 1993). Finally, females are more likely to respond to problems by engaging in internalizing behavior such as drug use while males are more likely to respond by engaging in externalizing behavior such as fighting (Agnew & Brezina, 1997).
In some research, the main focus is to highlight the extent to which deviant child and adolescent behaviors affect life in adulthood (Sampson & Laub, 1992). Studies have found that early aggressiveness predict later aggression and criminal behavior and they have also found that there is a significant level of stability in crime and aggression over the course of a lifetime (Sampson & Laub, 1992). This inquisitiveness has led to many studies trying to find causes for adolescents to be criminals or be involved in criminal behavior throughout their lives.
Many of the studies I researched listed several tactics that school counselors and parents could participate in to help their children become less deviant. For example, some suggestions by Cashwell & Vacc (1996) are simply identifying at-risk students, teaching social skills, and rehabilitating already known delinquents.
While there are several differences between the genders, there are also many similarities at the time of adolescence. However, I wanted to highlight the differences because I believe that some researchers unknowingly group males and females in their studies. In examining the age differences of adolescents, there was more delinquency reported in late adolescence than in early. This seemed to be the case for both sexes. There was also evident differences between the races in some of the studies I researched, however, I was only focusing on the white adolescent results.
There are some factors that point to adolescent delinquency. The most prominent factors that I found were low family cohesion, positive peer relations, delinquency proneness, internalizing of problems by females, and externalizing of problems by males. By using the studies that I researched, I do not believe that there was significant evidence of drugs or alcohol causing delinquency. I think that some adolescents involved in delinquent activities, participate in the use of drugs and alcohol, but the drugs and alcohol do not cause the delinquency. There were some other factors that I explored to see if the results came out the way researches had hypothesized them to, but some of them just did not turn out the way that they had thought they would. It was very interesting to see that not everything the researchers predicted had been proven true. Some of the other explanations of adolescent deviance that I studied had some proof that they helped aid in the deviance, but they were not of great significance. Overall, I learned a great deal about adolescents and what factors make them feel like they need to be involved in deviant acts. I do realize that each and every adolescent is different, so many of these factors are not characteristic of every delinquent adolescent. Some factors are characteristic of some adolescents, and all other factors have to be explored to understand if they are, in any way, related to the delinquency of some adolescents. We will never be able to determine exactly what factors cause the delinquency in every adolescent.