FSU researchers find divorce has little impact on criminal behavior by adolescents, adults

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Kevin Beaver, the Judith Rich Harris Professor of Criminology

Divorce may contribute to a temporary bump in criminal behavior and delinquency among children, but it lessens over time, according to a new study by Florida State University researchers.

While previous research has linked changes in family structure, such as parental divorce, to juvenile delinquency, few studies have examined this impact over time from early adolescence into adulthood — until now.

Kevin Beaver, the Judith Rich Harris Professor of Criminology, found that changes in family structure have very little impact on children in their adolescent years and are not substantially associated with criminal behavior as they reach adulthood. The findings were published in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice.

“Essentially what we found is divorce, broken families or blended families might be detrimental for the child in the here and now, but that impact may erode over time,” Beaver said. “It might not have this long-term effect.”

The study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, also known as Add Health. Data collection began in 1994 when participants were in middle and high school and continued every 3 to 4 years through 2008, when they were between the ages of 24 and 32. Each survey included a sample of about 15,000 participants.

Researchers found that participants whose parents were married during the initial survey and divorced by the second displayed an increase in delinquent involvement during that second study period. However, in the subsequent surveys that delinquent behavior dissipated.

“This indicates that experiencing parental divorce in adolescence is associated with a relatively small and temporary increase in delinquent involvement during teen years,” Beaver said. “However, we didn’t find substantial changes in criminal behavior in late adolescence or adulthood.”

The team also found that family structure among teens whose parents were already divorced during the initial wave of questioning did not influence delinquency over the study period. Similarly, moving from a single-parent family to a stepfamily in adolescence was not significantly associated with delinquent behavior.Scholars found that moving from a traditional two-parent household to a stepfamily in adolescence did have a small influence on delinquent behavior at the time. But again, this did not continue into adulthood.

Beaver said future research could examine whether experiencing parental divorce or moving into a stepfamily at earlier ages is associated with criminal involvement in adulthood. Additional research could also examine circumstances of parental divorce as well as participants’ perception of the family environment prior to shifts in family structure.

The study was co-authored by Cashen Boccio, who earned her doctoral degree from FSU in 2018.