IV. Family Structure and Delinquency
There has been a substantial increase in many types of adolescent problems since themid-1960s.The rates of adolescent crime, substance abuse, suicide, school dropout, and teen pregnancy, for example, all have shown dramatic growth during this period. Some scholars have noted that the rise in child and adolescent problems parallels the increase in divorce, cohabitation, and births to never-married mothers that has occurred in recent decades. Indeed, several studies have reported strong associations between the proportion of female-headed households and adolescent and adult antisocial behavior. In most of these studies the effect of family structure is as strong as or stronger than variables such as poverty or race. Research conducted by Rob Sampson (1986), for example, found that rates of violent victimization are two to three times higher among residents of neighborhoods with high levels of family disruption.
Although family structure is a risk factor for child behavior problems, it is also true that there is great variability in outcomes among children from single-parent families and stepfamilies. The evidence indicates that the majority of these children do not manifest behavior problems. In fact, the rates for such behavior problems increase from 5% among children from intact, nuclear families to 10% to 15% of children from single-parent or divorced families (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999, R. L. Simons & Associates, 1996). The vast majority of children from a single-parent family or stepfamily do not develop conduct problems; hence, such an expectation would turn out to be erroneous more often than not. Accurate prediction of which individuals are most vulnerable to a particular risk factor usually requires knowledge of the mechanisms by which the condition produces its deleterious effects. Thus, if we are to identify children from single-parent and stepparent families most at risk for adjustment problems, we need information regarding the manner in which family structure increases a child’s odds for developmental difficulties. Research indicates that in large measure, family stress and disrupted parenting explain which children are likely to manifest conduct problems (Amato, 2000).
Given that diverse family forms are an inevitable feature of American society, there is some controversy associated with conducting research on the consequences of variations in family structure. The findings of such research are often used by political groups that are opposed to diversity and gender equality. Also, most parents who divorce undoubtedly do so as a last resort, and the welfare of their children is of great concern to them. Some people have suggested that to do research on these families that highlights their problems may seem cruel in light of the other difficulties they face. Although these issues are important, social science is concerned with describing and explaining empirical reality. Hence, it is essential that we as scientists do our best to avoid denying or distorting facts because of personal values or ideology. Such a commitment is not only in the best interest of science but also is the approach most likely to benefit society. Research has clearly established a link between family structure and an elevated risk for developmental problems. This effect is quite modest, however, and appears to be largely explained by the fact that the stresses associated with single parents, divorced parents, and stepfamilies tend to compromise the quality of parenting that children receive.