Family communication and delinquency

Family communication and delinquency

Richard D. Clark

Family researchers have examined a number of characteristics of the relationship between family functioning and delinquent activity, such as broken homes, family cohesiveness, parental attitudes, and parental discipline. Increasingly, attention has focused on one common element of each characteristic: communication between parents and children (Oyserman & Saltz, 1993; Scannapieco, 1993; Graves, Openshaw & Adams, 1992; Masselam, Marcus, & Stunkard, 1990; Morrison & Zetlin, 1992).

Communication among family members is generally accepted as one of the most crucial facets of interpersonal relationships and is seen as a key to understanding the dynamics underlying family relations. Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) defined a family as a rule-governed system whose members are continually defining and redefining the nature of their relationship through patterns of communication. Galvin and Brommel (1991) postulate that family members utilize patterns of communications to organize themselves into predictable modes of behavior. By studying communication patterns, it is possible to understand such things as cohesion, decision-making processes, and the rules and roles that operate within the family system. Barnes (1989), for example, noted that discrepancies between parents’ and adolescents’ perception of the family were related to poor communication between the two generations. In addition, Reichertz and Frankel (1990) noted that compared to families who were experiencing problems with their children, “optimal families” were more open and expressive when communicating.

Communication has also been identified as important for understanding delinquency. Hirschi (1969), in a study of self-reported delinquency among boys, noted that as the intimacy of communication between the parent and the child increased, the likelihood that the child will commit delinquent acts decreased. Comparing this finding to earlier work that found little difference among delinquents and non-delinquents in level of communication, Hirschi concluded that it was not communication per se that influenced delinquency, but rather the “focus” of the communication. Similar findings regarding the type of communication and its relationship to delinquency were noted by Cernkovich and Giordano (1987) who reported that instrumental communication (i.e., talking about problems, plans for the future) was significantly related to lower levels of delinquency, while intimate communication (i.e., sharing of private thoughts and feelings) was unrelated to delinquent behaviors. Thus, while Hirschi and Cernkovich and Giordano differed on the importance of “intimate” communication, they agreed that “types” of family communication are important for understanding delinquency.

The focus of the current study is on adolescents’ self-reported delinquent behavior and two types of family communication – open and problem. It was hypothesized that those adolescents who reported less open and more problem communication with their parents would also report higher levels and more serious forms of delinquency.

Sample

The subjects of this study were 339 high school students from a small, rural, mostly white Midwestern city. Participation was voluntary with confidentiality assured by the use of an anonymous questionnaire. A comparison of the sample demographics to the total population revealed no significant differences on sex, race, or grade level. There were slightly more females (53%) than males, and the age range was 14 to 19 with a mean of 16.2. Only a small portion of the sample (11%) was minority. Family structure was somewhat diverse but the predominate characteristic was that both biological parents were present in the home (62%).

Instruments

Adolescents were administered the Parent-Adolescent Communication Scale (PACS; Barnes & Olson, 1985) which was developed to measure the extent of openness or freedom of exchange related to ideas, information, and concerns between parents and their adolescent children. In addition, it is considered to be an indicator of trust or honesty experienced by parent and adolescent in addition to tapping the emotional tone of interactions between family members. Two subscales, labelled “open” and “problem,” measure positive and negative processes and content issues in communication. Ten items measure positive (open) and ten measure negative (problem) aspects of communication. The two subscales range from 10 to 50 with the higher score indicating either more open communication, or less of a problem in communication. Thus, the higher the score on the subscale, the better the communication between the child and the parent.

A modified version of Elliot and Ageton’s (1980) Self-Report Delinquency Scale was used to measure delinquent activity. This modified questionnaire consists of 25 items related to delinquent behaviors. The delinquent acts ranged from those that are relatively minor, such as skipping school or theft of amounts under $5, to more serious delinquent acts such as carrying a concealed weapon or auto theft. The authors of the present study utilized a coding scheme developed by Cernkovich and Giordano (1987) to extrapolate the number of self-reported delinquent behaviors over a one-year period. The coding was: never = 0; once or twice a year = 2; once every 2-3 months = 5; once a month = 12, once every 2-3 weeks = 22, once a week = 52, and 2-3 times a week or more = 130.

The information gained from this instrument was used to develop two dependent variables. First, we slightly modified Cernkovich and Giordano’s measure for minor and major delinquent behavior: major delinquency includes motor vehicle theft, grand theft, aggravated assault, selling hard drugs, rape, robbery, breaking and entering, and carrying concealed weapon. An individual is classified as a major offender if he/she self-reports at least one major offense. Otherwise an individual is classified as a minor offender or nonoffender depending upon whether they self-reported committing at least one minor offense. Minor delinquency consisted of vandalism, stealing property, running away from home, lying about one’s age, petty theft, prostitution, sexual intercourse, gang fights, selling marijuana, hitting someone, disorderly conduct, joy-riding, public intoxication, stealing items worth between $5 and $50, skipping classes, using drugs to get high, and drinking alcohol. Second, we created a measure of low and high rate delinquency. Individuals were classified as low rate offenders if they committed at least one delinquent act, but the total number of delinquent acts they reported was less than the median number of self-reported delinquent acts. Conversely, an individual was classified as a high rate offender if they reported at least one delinquent act, and if the total number of delinquent acts reported exceeded the median number of delinquent acts reported by the sample. As was the case for minor and major delinquency, individuals were classified as a nonoffenders if they reported committing no delinquent acts.

RESULTS

The analysis revealed that having open communication with either of one’s parents is significantly associated with less serious forms of delinquency (Table 1). As one moves toward less open communication, there is a tendency toward more serious forms of deviant behavior. The same general pattern holds for problem communication. Again, if an adolescent has problems communicating with either parent, there is a significant tendency toward engaging in more serious forms of delinquency. Thus, in the aggregate, good communication with one’s parents is significantly associated with less serious forms of delinquency.

Table 1 Communication and Type of Delinquency

Total Sample

Open Maternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 19 40.9 9.0 5.79 p [less than] .01

Minor Del. Acts 177 34.4 9.2

Major Del. Acts 132 33.4 9.3

Open Paternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 17 34.8 12.0 4.27 p [less than] .01

Minor Del. Acts 168 32.4 9.4

Major Del. Acts 131 29.6 9.9

Note: Scheff Post Hoc comparison shows that for maternal

communication, those who reported no delinquency differed from those

who reported any delinquency, while for paternal communication,

those who reported no or minor delinquency differed from those who

reported major delinquency.

Problem Maternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 19 37.9 9.3 7.94 p [less than] .001

Minor Del. Acts 177 30.4 7.4

Major Del. Acts 132 30.8 8.4

Problem Paternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 17 36.5 8.1 4.49 p [less than] .05

Minor Del. Acts 168 30.9 7.6

Major Del. Acts 131 30.9 7.5

Note: Scheff Post Hoc comparison shows that for both maternal and

paternal communication, those who reported no delinquency differed

from those who reported any delinquency.

Analysis of the relationship between communication and the frequency or rate of delinquency suggests a significant association between open communication and level of delinquency (Table 2); open communication is related to lower rates of delinquent involvement. For problem communication, the results are essentially the same; adolescents who reported significantly lower levels of problem communication reported no delinquent behavior.

Overall, the analyses suggest that “good” family communication appears to insulate a child from delinquent behavior. When focusing on the type of delinquent behavior, (i.e., minor vs. major), or the rate of delinquency (i.e., low vs. high), three out of four of our models suggest that communication appears to have its largest impact on the transition into delinquency. Thus, the models suggest that while “good” communication is an insulator from delinquent behavior, once a decision to commit a delinquent act has been made, the quality of communication with the parents is largely irrelevant in determining the type or level of behavior that will occur.

Table 2 Communication and Rate of Delinquency Total Sample

Open Maternal Communication

Group N Moan S.D. F

No Del. Acts 19 40.9 9.0 6.38 p [less than] .01

Low Rate Del. 158 34.7 9.1

High Rate Del. 151 33.2 9.3

Open Paternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 17 34.8 12.0 5.75 p [less than] .01

Low Rate Del. 150 32.9 9.1

High Rate Del. 149 29.5 9.9

Note: Scheff Post Hoc comparison shows that for maternal

communication, those who reported no delinquency differed from those

who reported any delinquency, while for paternal communication,

those who reported no or low rate delinquency differed from those

who reported high rate offending.

Problem Maternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 19 37.9 9.3 7.92 p[less than] .001

Low Rate Del. 158 30.7 6.9

High Rate Del. 151 30.4 8.6

Problem Paternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 17 36.5 8.1 5.13 p [less than] .01

Low Rate Del. 150 31.4 6.2

High Rate Del. 149 30.4 8.6

Note: Scheff Post Hoc comparison shows that for both maternal

and paternal communication, those who reported no delinquency

differed from those who reported any delinquency.

The data were then further analyzed for potential age (under or over 16) and gender differences. Unfortunately, there was not enough variance in our measure of race to adequately test its impact on communication and delinquency. Similar to the above analyses, ANOVAs were used to explore these relationships.

First, with respect to age, it was found that for youths under 16, there was no significant association between communication with parents – open or problem – and delinquency. On the other hand, for youth 16 or older, while open communication with one’s mother was unrelated to delinquency, open communication with one’s father (F = 4.93; p [less than] .05) and problem communication with either the mother (F = 3.51; p [less than] .05) or father (F = 3.90; p [less than] .05) was significantly associated with delinquent behavior. For open communication with one’s father, respondents who reported no delinquent acts or minor delinquency differed significantly from those who reported engaging in major delinquency. For the problem subscales, the significant differences lie between no delinquency and any delinquency. The results for the analysis of the rate of delinquency – none, low rate, and high rate – paralleled these findings.

Interestingly, a significant interaction was also found when the data for sex were examined. For females, the analyses revealed that communication with one’s parents was not significantly associated with the type of delinquency (i.e., minor vs. major), and was significantly associated only with the rate of delinquency for open communication with one’s father. For males, while open communication with one’s mother was not significant, open communication with one’s father, and both problem communication with one’s mother and father were significantly associated with delinquent involvement. The respective scores for each subscale are: female open communication with father, 32.0, 33.4, and 29.4 (F = 3.39, p [less than] .05); males open communication with father, 40.1, 32.0, and 29.9 (F = 3.18, p [less than] .05); problem communication with mother, 42.3, 32.1, and 31.8 (F = 4.85, p [less than] .01; and problem communication with father, 41.8, 32.8, and 31.5 (F = 5.22, p [less than] .01.) as was the case for youths 16 or older, the pattern for the rate of delinquency parallelled the analysis for the type of delinquency.

Our last control variable examined the relationship between family structure, delinquency, and patterns of communication. Family structure was dichotomized into both parents in the home and “other.” The latter included situations in which the child was either in a single-parent home or resided with one biological parent and one stepparent. The analysis revealed that for families in which both parents were in the home, all forms of communication were significantly associated with delinquency (Table 3). However, for “nontraditional” families, communication – open or problem – was not significantly associated with delinquency for either parent. Similar to the patterns for both age and sex, the findings for family structure and rate of delinquency paralleled the findings for the type of delinquency.

DISCUSSION

This study examined the relationship between communication with one’s parents and delinquency as reported by a sample of high school students. It was hypothesized that “good” communication would be significantly associated with both less serious forms of delinquency and lower rates of delinquency. In general, the hypothesis was supported. For the total sample, those who had higher scores on both the open and problem communication subscales reported engaging in less serious forms and lower rates of delinquency. For virtually every model examined, the significant difference was in the categories nondelinquent versus any type or level of delinquent behavior. Notwithstanding the small sample size for nondelinquents, the finding suggests that once a decision has been made to commit a delinquent act, the level of communication does not appear to influence either the type of delinquency – minor or major – or the level of delinquency – low or high.

Table 3 Communication and Type of Delinquency Intact Families

Open Maternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 10 42.3 8.1 5.10 p [less than] .01

Minor Del. Acts 117 34.2 8.6

Major Del. Acts 77 33.4 8.5

Open Paternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 10 40.8 9.8 5.55 p [less than] .01

Minor Del. Acts 116 32.9 9.0

Major Del. Acts 77 31.0 9.5

Note: Scheff Post Hoc comparison shows that for both maternal

and paternal communication, those who reported no delinquency

differed from those who reported any delinquency.

Problem Maternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 10 39.8 7.6 8.91 p [less than] .001

Minor Del. Acts 117 29.9 7.3

Major Del. Acts 77 30.0 7.8

Problem Paternal Communication

Group N Mean S.D. F

No Del. Acts 10 40.0 7.7 8.63 p [less than] .001

Minor Del. Acts 116 30.3 7.4

Major Del. Acts 77 31.4 7.2

Note: Scheff Post Hoc comparison shows that for both maternal and

paternal communication, those who reported no delinquency differed

from those who reported any delinquency.

Several interesting differences for age, sex, and family structure were noted. We found that communication is not as important in preventing delinquency for younger adolescents, females, and adolescents from nontraditional families. While the data do not allow us to test alternative hypothesis, we suspect that, in part, this finding may be due to the fact that the parents exerted stronger control over these subgroups. Males and youth over the age of 16 tend to have fewer restrictions on their behaviors which may allow family communication to come into play. To the extent that this hypothesis is correct, it offers support for Hirschi’s contention that it is indirect attachment rather than direct controls that insulates a child from delinquent behavior. If a parent does not exercise direct controls, their ability to communicate with the child may become more important; without good communication, the child appears to be more susceptible to delinquency.

This hypothesis does not help explain the findings for youth from nontraditional families who may also have less direct supervision. If our hypothesis is correct, we would expect that communication would not be significant for youths from traditional families, but would be significant for those from nontraditional families. However, this is not the case. Unfortunately, the small number of respondents from nontraditional families precluded further analysis. Additional research in this area is needed.

Finally, it is possible that our findings reflect our methodology. The sample was mostly white, from a small rural city, and is cross-sectional rather than longitudinal. Thus, we were unable to test whether poor communication leads to delinquent behavior, or whether the relationships uncovered here were due to the disintegration of the family as a result of delinquency. In spite of these stipulations, we feel that the findings are valid and useful. 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.

REFERENCES

Barnes, H. L. (1989). Cross-generational coalitions, discrepant perceptions and family functioning. In D. Olson, C. Russel, & D. Sprenkle (Eds.), Circumplex model: Systematic assessment and treatment of families (pp. 175-198). University of Minnesota.

Barnes, H. L., & Olson, D. H. (1985). Parent-adolescent communication. In D. H. Olson, H. I. McCubbin, H. Barnes, A. Larsen, M. Muxen, & M. Wilson (Eds.), Family inventories (pp. 55-70). University of Minnesota: Family Social Science.

Cernkovich, S. A., & Giordano, P. C. (1987). Family relationships and delinquency. Criminology, 25, 295-319.

Elliot, D. E., & Ageton, S. S. (1980). Reconciling race and class differences in self-reported and official estimates of delinquency. American Sociological Review, 45, 95-110.

Galvin, K., & Brommel, B. (1991). Family communication: Cohesion and change. New York: Harper Collins.

Graves, R., Openshaw, D. K., & Adams, G. R. (1992). Adolescent sex offenders and social training. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 36, 139-153.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Masselam, V. S., Marcus, R. F., & Stunkard, C. L. (1990). Parent-adolescent communication, family functioning, and school performance. Adolescence, 25, 725-737.

Morrison, G., & Zeltin, A. (1992). Family profiles of adaptability, cohesion, and communication for learning in handicapped and nonhandicapped adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21, 229-240.

Oyserman, D., & Saltz, E. (1993). Competence, delinquency, and attempts to attain possible selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 360-374.

Reichertz, D., & Frankel, H. (1990). Family environments and problematic adolescents: Toward an empirically based typology. Community Alternatives, 2, 51-74.

Scannapieco, M. (1993). The importance of family functioning to prevention of placement: A study of family preservation services. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 10, 509-520.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J., & Johnson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes. New York: Norton.

Glenn Shields, DSW, Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio 43403.

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