What are the causes of juvenile delinquency?

Digital Vision/Photodisc/Getty Images

Understanding the causes of juvenile delinquency is an integral part of preventing a young person from involvement in inappropriate, harmful and illegal conduct. Four primary risk factors can identify young people inclined to delinquent activities: individual, family, mental health and substance abuse.

Often, a juvenile is exposed to risk factors in more than one of these classifications.

Individual Risk Factors

Several risk factors are identified with juvenile delinquency. A minor who has a lower intelligence and who does not receive a proper education is more prone to become involved in delinquent conduct. Other risk factors include impulsive behaviour, uncontrolled aggression and an inability to delay gratification. In many instances, multiple individual risk factors can be identified as contributing to a juvenile's involvement in harmful, destructive and illegal activities.

Family Risk Factors

A consistent pattern of family risk factors are associated with the development of delinquent behaviour in young people. These family risk factors include a lack of proper parental supervision, ongoing parental conflict, neglect and abuse (emotional, psychological or physical). Parents who demonstrate a lack of respect for the law and social norms are likely to have children who think similarly. Finally, those children that display the weakest attachment to their parents and families are precisely the same juveniles who engage in inappropriate activities, including delinquent conduct.

Mental Health Risk Factors

Several mental health factors are also seen as contributing to juvenile delinquency. It is important to keep in mind, however, that a diagnosis of certain types of mental health conditions--primarily personality disorders--cannot be made in regard to child. However, there are precursors of these conditions that can be exhibited in childhood that tend to end up being displayed through delinquent behaviour. A common one is conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is defined as "a lack of empathy and disregard for societal norms." (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, American Psychiatric Association, 2004.)

Substance Abuse Risk Factors

Substance abuse is found in a majority of cases of juvenile delinquency, Two trends are identified in regard to substance abuse and minors. First, juveniles are using more powerful drugs today than was the case as recently as 10 years ago. Second, the age at which some juveniles begin using drugs is younger. Children in elementary schools are found to be using powerful illegal drugs. The use of these illegal substances or the use of legal substances illegally motivates young people to commit crimes to obtain money for drugs. Additionally, juveniles are far more likely to engage in destructive, harmful and illegal activities when using drugs and alcohol.


Through the process of identifying potential risk factors that spur a juvenile to inappropriate and even illegal conduct and behaviour, early interdiction can occur. Positive intervention, through programming, education and counselling, can divert a juvenile from a path that otherwise would result in delinquency as a child and crime as an adult.