Reuters Health

Monday December 20 1:26 PM ET

Teenage delinquency affects behavior of next generation

NEW YORK, Dec 20 (Reuters Health) -- Experts have been debating the effects of divorce and unmarried motherhood on children for years. A new report suggests that mothers who were delinquent as teenagers are more likely to get divorced or never marry, and are also more likely to have children with behavior problems.

Dr. Robert E. Emery of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and colleagues analyzed data collected over a 14-year period as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. They wanted to test several theories of how divorce affects children's behaviors.

The researchers looked at whether mothers reported being delinquent in 1980, when they were 15 to 22 years old, and whether these young women were married, never married, or divorced in 1994. They also looked at whether the children of these women had behavioral problems in 1994.

In the 1994 data, there were 840 married women, 142 divorced women, and 222 never-married women, all with at least one child. In 1980, these women had completed a questionnaire asking about delinquent behavior, including fighting, drug use, criminal activity, and contact with the criminal justice system.

Writing in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, Emery and his team report that children of divorced and never-married mothers had more behavioral problems than those of married mothers, including antisocial behavior, anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, rebellion, social withdrawal, and over-dependency. Younger mothers and those who had had their first child at a younger age were also more likely to have children with behavior problems.

The researchers also reported that mothers who had reported being delinquent during their adolescence were significantly more likely than other women to be divorced or unmarried. Women who reported being delinquent were also more likely to be living in poverty in 1994, and to have had their first child at a younger age.

Emery and colleagues analyzed their data to see how adolescent delinquency, marital status 14 years later, and having children with behavior problems interacted. They conclude that both marital status and a history of delinquency for the mothers influenced behavioral problems in the children.

A history of delinquency seemed to make it more likely that a woman would either get divorced or never marry, but it also seemed to affect the likelihood of having a child with behavior problems, even after the investigators accounted for these effects on marital status. Likewise, having a mother who was divorced or had never married seemed to make it more likely that children would have behavior problems, even when the researchers accounted for a history of delinquency.

These findings led Emery's team to conclude that ''practitioners and policymakers (should) carefully interpret the correlation between marital status and children's behavior problems,'' emphasizing that while being divorced or unmarried did seem to have some effect on children's behavior, the mother's ``behavior and personality characteristics'' also had a significant effect.

SOURCE: Journal Family Psychology 1999;13:1-12.

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