The Risks of Juvenile Delinquency in Children of Divorce


  • Disciplinary and behavioral issues can be a result of emotional distress, such as parental divorce.
  • Studies have highlighted cause and effect relationship between delinquency and divorce.
  • Learning more about the research will encourage parents to be more vigilant and present in their child's life.

Behavioral issues in teenagers are nothing out of the ordinary. In schools across the United States, incidents involving students have become a mainstay in headline news and media. For those involved in education, the classroom is supposed to be a safe place for learning and growth, but statistics can paint a very different picture of the school setting.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 78 percent of disciplinary reasons that resulted in the removal of a student from a regular education program for at least an entire school day, were for violent incidences. The other listings in the 2013-14 U.S. Department of Education statistical collection included illicit drugs (15.1 percent), weapons possession (5.1 percent), and alcohol (1.8 percent).

This type of behavior is often a result of acting out an emotional issue in the lives of the students. For many students, parental divorce can be an emotional spark that ignites a chain of behavioral and disciplinary issues that could result in juvenile delinquency. Acting out one’s emotions in external behavioral patterns is a common social norm found in adolescence, and while its occurrence is ordinary, all of the baggage associated with experiencing a parental divorce can exacerbate the behavior.

Delinquency and divorce

There are educated theories that exist within the field of developmental behavioral genetics that say that parents may provide genes to their biological offspring that increase both the risk of delinquency and the corresponding risk of divorce exposure. It is referred to as a passive gene-environment correlation, according to studies published in the Psychological Bulletin.

While associating adolescent delinquency and an adolescent’s risk to exposure to divorce, it’s important to view this behavior as a health risk, because from a health perspective, this behavior, while partially associated with genetics, can be treated like any other health-related issue, according to a study published in Developmental Psychology.

The study in Developmental Psychology showed that divorce was associated with adolescent delinquency via family-level or shared environmental mechanism, which is in contrast to the often-cited theory that the family environment impacts children at a child-specific level, rather than a family-wide level. It also showed that parental divorce (and also possibly remarriage) is associated with adolescent delinquency via shared environmental mechanisms. These results are consistent with a causal connection between parental divorce and adolescent delinquency.

Connections and societal perceptions

The idea of cause and effect between the two concepts is a historically-established perception, based on incarceration numbers and their correlation to how many of those incarcerated come from what are socially considered to be “broken families.” The Journal of Research on Adolescence did a study that showed that children from stepparent and single mother families have a significantly higher incarceration rate than children of intact families.

This does not reflect on the single parents that are vigilant and take care of their children throughout their development. Those parents, who can either co-parent or be the dedicated parent that your adolescent needs, deserve to be lauded for their efforts. Parenting a child through divorce is a constant challenge, and no matter what stage of development a child is at, they never make it easy for the parent.

It’s necessary to point out that despite all of the hard-working single and divorced parents out there, tirelessly and thanklessly devoting their time and energy to their children, the societal perception of parental divorce leading to juvenile delinquency is a long way off. Much of that stems from studies and research that supports the preconceived notion.

However, there are studies out there that take into account how parental and social influences results. A study done at Eastern Tennessee State University examined the effects of family structure on juvenile delinquency and found that no family structure variables caused significant differences when looking at violent delinquency. Nevertheless, there was a difference in how family structures affected violent delinquency, in comparison to nonviolent delinquency.

Be a parent

Much of the delinquent behaviors that can result in adolescent incarceration include drug use, skipping school, alcohol abuse, and generally hostile behavior. These behaviors can cause ripple effects throughout a child’s life and disrupt their natural development into adulthood. When it comes to divorce and juvenile delinquency, the cause and effect nature that the studies examine highlights the need for co-parenting and communication.

Stopping divorce from occurring in unhappy and dysfunctional marriages is impractical and unrealistic, but being a parent to a child is an obligation, regardless of their age and your marital status. You have to give them the tools to succeed through the complex emotional tapestry that life offers. You also need to be confident in your co-parent, that despite the divorce and any water under the bridge, that they also will help them grow, develop, and avoid the troubles of adolescence.

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