The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Adolescent Rule-Breakers—Bad Friends, Missing Fathers

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Some wild teens outgrow their adolescent trouble-making. But all too many teen rule-breakers turn into adult lawbreakers and sociopaths. Consequently, educators and public officials have reason to worry about the rule-breaking adolescent. Wanting to know what circumstances or characteristics predispose adolescents to break rules, researchers at Arizona State University recently looked closely at a number of possible influences. And though their findings highlight the importance of early childhood aggressiveness and of bad adolescent friendships, their analysis exposes the role of family structure in fostering or inhibiting both of these antecedents of adolescent rule-breaking.

The Arizona State scholars carefully assess the likelihood that children who are highly aggressive and who develop negative peer relationships become adolescent rule-breakers. To do so, they pore over data collected from 383 children (193 girls and 190 boys) from urban, suburban, and rural Midwestern communities.

Not surprisingly, the researchers discern significant statistical links between childhood aggression-disruptiveness on the one hand and later adolescent rule-breaking on the other. In explaining these linkages, the authors of the new study limn “mediated pathways to rule-breaking . . . consistent for boys and girls.” Two “peer processes”—namely, high levels of peer rejection and deviant friendships—emerge in the researchers’ analysis as particularly formative in determining these pathways.

But beyond the peer processes that define the researchers’ focus, careful readers of their study will detect the potent influence of family structure. As the researchers acknowledge, for the boys and girls in their study, “being in a single parent household” was “positively associated with early A[ggression]D[isruptiveness]” (p < 0.001) when they compared these children to peers in two-parent families. A closer look at the researchers’ statistics also reveals a significant linkage between being in a single-parent household on the one hand and experiencing high levels of peer rejection (p < 0.01) and having deviant friends (p < 0.01) on the other. Predictably, a significant statistical relationship also emerges between being in a single-parent household structure and adolescent rule-breaking of various types (p < 0.05 or p < 0.01, depending on the type of rule in view).  

Though not as strong as family structure as a statistical predictor of troubling outcomes, the experience of a parental divorce also appears to put the children in this study on paths leading to adolescent rule-breaking. The researchers conclude that “parental divorce was associated with M[oderate]P[eer]R[ejection]” among the boys and girls in their study (p < 0.01), with further parsing of the data establishing that moderate peer rejection predicts having deviant friends (p < 0.05). 

In the conclusion of their study, the Arizona State scholars stress what their findings reveal about “the role of adverse peer relations” in incubating antisocial behaviors. But those who examine those findings closely will realize that they also tell a sobering story about the malign consequences of family disintegration.

(Idean Ettekal and Gary W. Ladd, “Developmental Pathways from Childhood Aggression-Disruptiveness, Chronic Peer Rejection and Deviant Friendships to Early-Adolescent Rule-Breaking,” Child Development 86.2 [2015]: 614-31.)