Public Release: 

Parenting style linked to teenage delinquency rates

Economic & Social Research Council

Parenting style is a crucial influence on whether young teenagers turn to crime or engage in delinquent activities. New ESRC-funded research reveals that parents who supervise their children closely but are happy to negotiate with them and allow the child to believe that he or she has some degree of autonomy are most likely to avoid problem teenagers.

Being firm while trying to gain influence through agreement is the parenting style most successful in reducing delinquency, suggests researcher Professor David Smith of Edinburgh University. "Parents who trust their children but are firm and active in supervising them have a lower degree of conflict than parents who try and lay down the law," he says. The least successful type of parenting combines attempts to control that appear arbitrary and inconsistent from the child's point of view with threats that are not carried out. "Inconsistent parenting leads the child to conclude that behaving well doesn't get results," he points out.

Findings from The Edinburgh Study (a research project currently in-progress among 4,300 children who live in the City of Edinburgh) suggest that delinquency at the age of 12 or 13 is fairly widespread and includes a wide range of behaviours such as shoplifting, fighting, carrying a weapon, stealing from cars, graffiti and assaults. More than half of the young people interviewed (aged 12-13) admitted to two or more delinquent acts in the previous 12 months.

Smoking and drinking are closely linked with delinquency, and increase sharply from age 12 to 13. Researchers also identified a substantial increase in the use of illegal drugs from age 12 to 13. At the age of around 13, 8 per cent of respondents said they had used drugs in the past year, most commonly cannabis, glue, or gas, and speed.

The study also draws attention to the close link between victimisation and offending. Young people who have been victims of crime (including bullying) are far more likely to commit offences than those who have not. The victimisation studied includes bullying, harassment by adults and crime victimisation such as theft, threats, robbery, assault, and attacks with a weapon. "We found that each of these three types of victimisation affected around half of 12 and 13 year olds," explains researcher Dr Lesley McAra of Edinburgh University.

Victimisation and offending are closely linked, she continues, because people tend to commit offences on others in their own school, neighbourhood, or social circle. And, in many cases offending and victimisation are part of the same social interactions (fights are the commonest example). Victimisation can lead to offending because the victim decides to 'get his own back' or 'take it out on someone else'.

Researchers measured three personality dimensions: impulsivity (inability to control immediate impulses); alienation (a belief that 'the world is against you'); and self-esteem. "Those who have been victimised and also those who offend, tend to have slightly lower self-esteem than others," Professor Smith points out. Impulsivity and alienation are also strongly related both to offending and to victimisation. This link helps to explain the link between offending and victimisation since being the victim of crime tends to make young people feel alienated, and if they also find it hard to control their impulses, they become more likely to commit offences 'to get their own back'.

This study's investigation of gender differences in delinquency rates has yet to draw a satisfactory conclusion. Delinquency is twice as common among boys as among girls at the age of 12 or 13. But researchers were surprised by the finding that delinquency actually increased more among girls than among boys between age 12 and 13. "We expect the boys and girls to draw further apart later, but in the early teenage period girls develop earlier than boys, and one consequence seems to be an earlier ''delinquency spurt' along with an earlier 'growth spurt', suggests Professor Smith. "In particular, there was a rapid increase in smoking among girls, so that by age 13 a higher proportion of girls than boys were smokers."


For further information, contact Professor David Smith, Dr Lesley McAra or Susan McVie at University of Edinburgh. Tel: 0131-650-2025, 0131-650-2036, or 0131-650- 9166. Email: or or, or, contact Lilian El-Doufani, Lesley Lilley or Karen Emerton in ESRC External Relations. Tel: 01793-413032, 01793-413119 or 01793-413122.


1. The Edinburgh Study collects information annually about 4,300 young people in the City of Edinburgh who started secondary school in the autumn of 1998. The purpose of the study is to understand more deeply why some young people become deeply involved with criminal offending over a long period, whereas others who might have had the same inclinations do not. The study also aims to understand why crime rates vary widely between different neighbourhoods, and how the neighbourhood influences the life histories of the individual young people living there. Information is collected from young people themselves, using questionnaires, from schools and teachers, and from the social work and children's hearing systems. These initial findings are taken from the period when the children were aged 12-13.

2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and government. The ESRC invests around £46 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is

3. REGARD is the ESRC's bibliographic database accessible via the World Wide Web. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

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