Boys more prone to trouble after family upheavals, UF study finds
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Family disruptions such as divorce or children being forced to live elsewhere are tougher on boys than girls, according to a newly published University of Florida study, which finds that rates of male juvenile delinquency and drug use rise when the household composition changes.
When families go through transitions such as children leaving home to live with grandparents or a mother’s boyfriends moving in or out of the house, boys are more likely to find trouble by running with the wrong crowd, said Marvin Krohn, a professor in UF’s department of criminology, law and society, who led the study.
“The major implication is that we can no longer focus on whether a family is single parent or dual parent in today’s world, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods where there are a lot of changes in the family that take place in a fairly short period of time,” he said.
Understanding the long-term effects of family upheaval is important in increasing sensitivity among school officials and others who work with youth, Krohn said. School psychologists and counselors who are aware of the relationship between family transitions and behavioral problems can take steps to ease the emotional adjustment, he said.
“Schools and social agencies need to be aware not only about the structure of a kid’s family, but the fact that it might change several times and those changes in and of themselves can have a pretty important effect on behavior,” he said.
Krohn, whose study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Youth Adolescence, said boys are more vulnerable to family transitions for a couple of reasons. The study was co-authored with Alan J. Lizotte, criminal justice professor at the University at Albany, and Gina Penly Hall, a graduate student in criminal justice at the University of Albany.
“While girls may respond to what goes on in the family by being depressed or showing signs of stress, boys are much more likely to externalize their displeasure with what goes on in the family by acting up,” Krohn said. “They react to the turmoil by seeking out friends who are
engaged in delinquent behavior, which increases the probability they will commit delinquent acts themselves.”
What’s more, he said, boys are not as attached as girls are to their mothers, who usually have the primary child-rearing responsibilities.
“When there’s a family transition, the mother is most likely to stay with the children, and girls have closer relationships with their mothers than boys do,” he said.
The findings are based on a study of 646 students enrolled in inner-city schools in Rochester, N.Y.; 73 percent were boys and 26 percent girls. The students were part of the long-term Rochester Youth Development Study, which began in 1988. Starting in seventh- and eighth-grades, participants were interviewed every six months until the age of 22 and then interviewed yearly until age 30. The UF study used data only from their teenage years. Parents or caretakers were also questioned.
Researchers used a 32-item delinquency scale measuring behaviors that ranged from minor property crimes, such as vandalism, to serious property and violent crimes, including burglary, robbery and assault. Respondents also answered a drug survey that examined use of substances ranging from marijuana to heroin, crack cocaine and other hard drugs.
“Often we find that a child who has experienced family transitions starts acting out in school, doesn’t do their homework and starts conducting themselves in a way that manifests itself into other behavioral problems,” Krohn said. “In our study, they started hanging out with the wrong kinds of kids.”
Within the first 2 1/2 years of the study, some of the boys and girls experienced as many as four transitions within their family, he said.
Besides creating trauma and stress, family disruptions have unforeseen economic consequences, Krohn said. The financial situation may deteriorate for the mother and children, particularly in situations where the father figure moves out of the house, he said.
“Dr. Krohn’s study highlights the fact that adolescent years are years of high vulnerability to delinquency and related problem behaviors particularly for boys,” said Deborah Capaldi, senior scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center. “Parents are often focused on their own relationship problems during these times, and are less focused on their children. Stepfathers and grandparents often do not have as much authority with adolescents as the biological father.”