Targeting Environments that Support Teen Delinquency

The concept of changing behavior by changing the environment around a youth is sometimes met with skepticism. However, a child’s behavior does change according to the environment. A child may be loud and aggressive with friends, but most kids do not behave that way at church, or with a grandmother, or around the police. Some environments support offensive behavior, while others do not. If a child is exhibiting delinquent behavior, the goal is to alter the environment around him to one that no longer supports the behavior in question.

According to Patrick Duffy Jr., PsyD, author of Parenting Your Delinquent, Defiant, or Out-of-Control Teen, the first step in this process is to define the environmental factors that contribute to delinquency. Though there are many ways of describing the predictors of delinquency over time, Elliot, Huizinga, and Ageton (1985) and Patterson, DeBaryshe, and Ramsey (1989) suggest that previous delinquent behavior is a direct predictor of future offenses. In other words, if they’ve done it before, they are likely to do it again.

Another direct predictor of delinquent behavior is delinquent peers (Dishion et al. 1996; Prinstein and Dodge 2008) who encourage the behavior through favorable attitudes toward and expressions of approval of it. Kids tend to operate in groups of friends and do things together, so if a child is hanging around with kids who are committing offenses or using drugs, she’s likely to do the same. If she associates with kids who are playing sports or working on computers, she likely will not be stealing, getting high, or beating people up. If a group hangs out in front of a store and participates in delinquent behaviors, it makes sense that it would be more effective to remove the child from that situation rather than trying to explain that nice kids do not do such things.

The family is where it can be particularly difficult to altar a child’s environment, and it is crucial that parents be honest with themselves. The research tells us that there are dynamics in families that predict the association with delinquent peers, which then predicts the behavior. There are many reasons for these dynamics, including the child’s behavior.

Lack of monitoring allows kids to have unsupervised time with other unsupervised kids, which provides opportunities for defiant behavior. Consider the example of an adult offender who is unlikely to commit crimes under the watchful eye of a probation officer. When not in that person’s presence, offenders are more likely to return to their previous behavior.

Research has also shown that if things are not good at home, kids are more likely to be bad in other places. If a child has been raised with little warmth and a lot of conflict, he is likely to have learned behaviors like verbal and physical aggression that make him less likeable to other kids. Youths who are not easily accepted by others tend to hang around with kids in similar circumstances. This creates a group of aggressive teens who have all been rejected because of their aggression and lack of social skills (Miller-Johnson et al. 2002). This behavior is mutually reinforced through prompting behavior such as fighting or approval, and you now have a group of kids committing delinquent acts.

Another factor that increases the likelihood of a child getting in trouble and associating with delinquent peers is difficulty in school. School activities allow youths to enhance social development; kids who are involved in school activities tend to be accepted by those who do not get into trouble. Those who are not active tend to socialize with others who are not active in school—yes, the delinquent group again. It usually is not leaders in student government who are arrested, although exceptions do occur. Those who look for opportunities to escape school by cutting class are much more likely to be involved in drugs and other delinquent activities (Vaughn et al. 2013).

It is probably not surprising that poor academic performance is linked to delinquent peer association. Those who do well academically tend to associate with others at the same level of performance, while those who shun academics also have a welcoming peer group—that’s right, the club that frowns upon success and supports school failure and delinquency.

All of the above information provides us with insight about both what we should not do and what we should do. Let’s start with what not to do.

The research does not support parents who wish to work individually with delinquent children. Though we can agree that a child’s characteristics do have some influence, the research does not show that they are key factors in predicting delinquent behavior. Rather, the key factors are previous offenses and delinquent peers.

For example, let’s say a parent targets the attitude that acting out and breaking rules is cool, and is able to create some change in the child’s perspective. If the child is nonetheless surrounded by delinquent peers in an unsupervised situation, he is likely to still drink and fight, regardless of his change in attitude. If, on the other hand, children are placed in a situation where drinking and fighting are not acceptable to peers, that behavior is less likely to persist.

This brings us to another difficulty in addressing a child as an individual: he is not motivated to change. He likes his attitude, and so do his friends—they all enjoy skipping school. A therapist meeting with him for one hour a week is not going to be able to talk him out of an attitude that he likes, one that his friends encourage for hours each day. He will learn what to say to impress his parents, school counselors, and anyone else who attempts to change his behavior. Though there are exceptions, individual therapy is not likely to generate lasting change in youths exhibiting delinquent behaviors. This frustrating ineffectiveness comes to you at a cost of anywhere from $100 to $150 per hour.

A 2013 study compared the outcomes for youths in New Jersey receiving functional family therapy (FFT) with those receiving individual therapy or mentoring. The youths receiving FFT showed significantly greater improvement across a wide variety of outcomes: “Specifically, only youth enrolled in FFT showed improved functioning in life domains, which include such areas as living situation, school behavior, achievement and attendance, and legal and vocational concerns” (Celinska, Ferrer, and Cheng 2013).

Next week we’ll take a closer look into the biggest predictor for delinquent behavior, other than prior delinquent behavior: association with delinquent peers. We will examine why Duffy says common intervention strategies that utilize group formats for delinquent teens tend to fall short of successful outcomes, and we’ll present some alternative approaches. 

In the meantime, check out Duffy’s new book, Parenting Your Delinquent, Defiant, or Out-of-Control Teen: How to Help Your Teen Stay in School and Out of Trouble Using an Innovative Multisystemic Approach


Celinska, K., S. Furrer, and C.-C. Cheng. 2013. “An Outcome-Based Evaluation of Functional Family Therapy for Youth with Behavioral Problems.” Journal of Juvenile Justice 2 (2): 23–36.

Dishion, T. J., K. M. Spracklen, D. W. Andrews, and G. R. Patterson. 1996. “Deviancy Training in Male Adolescent Friendships.” Behavior Therapy 27 (3): 373–90.

Elliot, D., D. Huizinga, and S. Ageton. 1985. Explaining Delinquency and Drug Use. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Miller-Johnson, S., J. D. Coie, A. Maumary-Gremaud, and K. Bierman. 2002. “Peer Rejections and Aggression and Early Starter Models of Conduct Disorder.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 30: 217–30.

Patterson, G. R., B. D. DeBaryshe, and E. Ramsey. 1989. “A Developmental Perspective on Antisocial Behavior.” American Psychologist 44 (2): 329–35.

Prinstein, M. J., and K. A. Dodge. 2008. “Current Issues in Peer Influence Research.” In Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents, edited by M. J. Prinstein and K. A. Dodge. New York: Guilford Press.

Vaughn, M. G., B. Maynard, C. Salas-Wright, B. E. Perron, and A. Abdon. 2013. “Prevalence and Correlates of Truancy in the United States: Results from a National Sample.” Journal of Adolescence 36 (4): 767–76.

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