Family structure

The influence of family structure on delinquency

For years we have been repeatedly told that two parent households are far superior for children, and specifically that children growing up in mother-only households are far more likely to have poor results, including higher rates of delinquency. Yet the studies showing these results have simplistically examined or reported on only these two types of households. Others researchers have determined that that the higher incomes found in two parent families accounts for the vast majority of the better outcomes reported from those studies.

However, now a Department of Justice report issued by its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention finds those old studies, which only compared single mother households with those with both parents present, were extremely misleading, since they ignored other household types, specifically those where the father was raising children without the mother. The report did not factor in the economic implications, but its results show that the higher incomes in two parent households did not result in better outcomes when the biological mother was absent from a household.

While children raised in households with both the biological parents generally do better and are less likely to become delinquents than those raised by single mothers, children raised in households with a biological father as a single parent do much worse, and are, in fact, in the most likely family arrangement to become delinquent. The second worst delinquency outcomes happen when the children are in households with their biological father and a stepmother. Children growing up in households with a single parent mother were less likely to become delinquent than if raised in households with just their biological father (whether he is single or married to someone other than the biological mother), presumably followed by those raised with a biological mother and stepfather (where they benefit from higher income), and then the children with both of their biological parents.

The entire report, Understanding and Responding to Girls’ Delinquency: Causes and Correlates of Girls’ Delinquency (April 2010) by Margaret A. Zahn, Robert Agnew, Diana Fishbein, Shari Miller, Donna-Marie Winn, Gayle Dakoff, Candace Kruttschnitt, Peggy Giordano, Denise C. Gottfredson, Allison A. Payne, Barry C. Feld, and Meda Chesney-Lind, can be downloaded for free at

The following is the section on the influence of family structure on delinquency, followed by the citations for this section, from page 7 of this report.

Family Structure

Although early research suggests that youth living in two-parent biological families fare better on a range of developmental outcomes than those in single-parent or alternative structures (Amato and Keith, 1991), this research typically finds that effects of family structure on developmental outcomes such as delinquency are not strong (Hetherington and Kelly, 2002). More tangible differences in family dynamics or circumstances—such as supervision practices—are largely responsible when study groups have different outcomes. An analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, using a large national probability sample of adolescents (Manning and Lamb, 2003) found that youth in two-parent biological families had more favorable adolescent outcomes than youth with other family structures, including lower levels of reported delinquency involvement. Youth living in families in which the mother was cohabiting with an unmarried partner had worse outcomes than those in stepparent families. A gender-specific analysis of the Add Health data (Demuth and Brown, 2004) found that a mother’s cohabitation had similar effects on the likelihood of involvement in delinquency for both boys and girls. The highest rates of delinquency were for youth in father-only households, followed by father–stepmother and single-

mother households.


Amato, P.R., and Keith, B. 1991. Parental divorce and the well-being of children: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 110:26–46.

Demuth, S., and Brown, S.L. 2004. Family structure, family processes, and adolescent delinquency: The significance of parental absence versus parental gender. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41:58–81.

Hetherington, E.M., and Kelly, J. 2002. For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Manning, W.D., and Lamb, K. 2003. Adolescent well-being in cohabiting, married, and single-parent families. Journal of Marriage and Family 65:876–893.