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The friendships of delinquents.


This article is directed at distinguishing the qualities of delinquents' friendships as contrasted with those of nondelinquents. Normal friendships will serve as a backdrop to facilitate understanding of the distinctions between the two. This review will look at behaviors and emotions displayed within delinquent and nondelinquent friendships and, particularly, those studies which have contrasted the two. Since the preponderance of studies relate to male delinquents and their friendships, this review will pertain primarily to male rather than female friendships. Finally, in the summary and conclusions new directions for furthering understanding of the nature of friendships within delinquent populations are outlined.

Normal Adolescent Friendships

The portrait commonly accepted of friendships and peer relationships often points to the overwhelming influence peers have on adolescent behavior. Rice's (1987) textbook characterization of adolescent friendships, for example, points to the following major themes:

(1) typically, in early adolescence, one to two chums are sought who are similar in sex, SES, grade, and school, and long periods are spent interacting with such individuals (e.g., on the telephone or at school activities); (2) friendships in early adolescence are unstable, with girls showing the greater instability because of the greater intimacy and reciprocity demands placed on friendships; (3) adolescents learn to get along with a heterogeneous group of peers to age 15, after which they become more discriminating; (4) adolescents conform to peer values, as well as forms of dress, appearance, and behavior. These values may not be far from those held by parents, but there is greater conformity to peer values as they approach emancipation and in situations where parent/adolescent conflict is great; (5) adolescent friendship fulfills emotional needs such as striving for independence, sharing of common interests, feelings, and problems, help in resolving conflicts, learning of social skills and the reduction of loneliness and insecurity.

Gender Differences

Normal adolescent friendships cannot be described without reference to striking differences between males and females. One may discuss the emotional qualities of friendships in general, with new qualities such as intimacy, empathy, and self-disclosure, appearing in adolescent relationships. However, the dramatic qualitative differences in favor of girls over boys makes it much less likely that differences between delinquent and nondelinquent boys will be detected (i.e., there is reduced variability). It is even possible, as Douvan and Adelson (1966) speculated, that delinquent males may exhibit more of the qualitative elements of nondelinquent females because of the greater need for loyalty and secrecy required for participation in delinquent activities. Also, while normal adolescent males might be socialized against showing intimacy in friendships, this might not be true of delinquent males.

The classic study by Douvan and Adelson (1966), as well as more recent research on adolescent friendships by Youniss and Smollar (1985), suggest that male-female difference in quality of friendship have been stable for about thirty years. The research by these authors involved interviews in 1955 and 1956 of 1,045 boys, ages 14 to 16, and 2,005 girls grades 6 through 12. Girls 14 to 16 years of age stressed security in friendship and wanted a friend to be loyal, trustworthy, and a reliable source of support in an emotional crisis. Boys, on the other hand, did not consider close friendships to be as important as did girls and made fewer demands for closeness, mutual understanding, or emotional support. Boys made little mention of security nor did they talk about sensitivity and empathy. Instead, they named concrete qualities such as friends needing to be cooperative and demanding little in the way of direct interaction. For boys, common pursuits, gang activities, and the need for help when in trouble all figured prominently in their descriptions. Finally, while girls relied upon close ties to one, two, or three best friends, boys appeared to need the peer group to support them in their quest for autonomy and resistance to authority.

Recent research both supports and refines the aforementioned findings concerning gender differences (Youniss & Smollar, 1985). In a series of eight related studies of 1,049 adolescents, ranging in age from 12 to 19 years, about half male and half female, the authors looked at the quality of interaction in adolescent friendship. Study six dealt with the nature of communication between close friends and whether they explained reasons for their ideas in discussions and perceived their friends as really trying to understand those ideas. The topics concerned schoolwork, friendships, family, future plans, and dating behavior. Symmetrical understanding, i.e., those in which friends both explained their reasoning and tried to understand their ideas, were present in 57 to 71% of female friendships across the five topic areas, while 29 to 48% of males showed such symmetry. Nonunderstanding, in which there was neither explanation of the friend's ideas, nor understanding by the friend of their ideas, was more common in close male friendships and as common as symmetrical understandings were in male friendships.

A separate but related study by Youniss and Smollar (1985) presented adolescents with a list of 20 items that described forms of interacting with four target persons. Results showed that 64% of females and 30% of males could be classified as having relationships in the mutual intimacy group. On the basis of this study and the one cited earlier, the authors state that "about 66% of females have close friendships that involve symmetrical understanding and intimacy" (p.104), while "less than 50% of males show this form of relationship" (p. 104). In addition, "almost 33% of males may be viewed as having close friendships characterized by nonunderstanding, an absence of intimacy, and a sense of guardedness or defensiveness" (p.104). Thus in terms of these dimensions, males typically have poorer quality friendships in adolescence.

Armsden and Greenberg (1987) developed a measure of both adolescent attachment to peers and to parents which clustered around factors called trust, communication, and alienation and which were combined into a measure of security-insecurity. Attachment scores were comprised of trust plus communication minus the alienation score. Females scored higher on this attachment measure and on the subcomponent scales of trust and communication, which are consistent with the earlier noted sex differences found by Youniss and Smollar (1985). No differences were found between the sexes as to how often they sought out peers in five emotionally charged situations.

Developmental Changes

Characteristics of friendships shift during the middle childhood to adolescent years due to both cognitive and emotional changes in the individual. First, the adolescent is more capable of empathic responses than are younger children. Feshbach (1978) described three components in the development of empathy: (1) the ability to discriminate the affective states of others; (2) the ability to assume another's perspective and role; and (3) an emotional capacity and responsiveness. Hoffman (1988) subsequently defined adolescent development of empathy as the final stage in which there is a more general appreciation of the other's life experiences and a "deep-felt appreciation of the long-term effects and implications of an individual's life circumstances (e.g., death of family member)" (p. 34). Thus, adolescents typically become better able to maintain and develop closer relationships due to the development of empathic and role-taking abilities.

There is little or no evidence of a developmental shift in the quality of perceived attachments to peers across the adolescent years. Greenberg, Siegel, and Leitch (1983) devised a measure of "felt security" with peers and parents and of adolescents' tendency to talk with various people in five situations of emotional arousal (i.e., alone or depressed, anxious or scared, critical of self and needing a boost, happy or have good news, or having just experienced a tragedy). No significant effects of age were found across the years 12 to 19.

Variations in the number of friends in one's social network appear to follow a curvilinear trend from middle childhood through middle adolescence. Feltham, Doyle, Schwartzman, Serbin, and Ledingham (1985) evaluated 844 children, grades 4 through 7, using the Pupil Evaluation Inventory. Subjects in the 6th to 7th grades showed more reciprocal friendships than did subjects in grades 4 to 5. There were no effects for gender, and the increase was primarily in same-sexed friends. Further, LaGaipa (1979) found an increase in the number of friends during early adolescence until age 15, whereafter the number of friends decreased as they appeared to become more discriminating.

Delinquents vs. Nondelinquents

A comparison of the social relationships of delinquents and nondelinquents has yielded a large body of inconsistent and contradictory findings. It is unlikely that samples which differ in terms of severity of delinquent behavior (i.e., adjudicated delinquents vs. those in the mainstream who have behaved in a delinquent fashion), early vs. late starters, those who commit crimes against property vs. persons who have not, would show uniform peer relationships. Also, variables such as age, gender, and social class would enhance the likelihood of finding inconsistent results. Finally, use of single-index measures of friendship (e.g., interview items dealing separately with self-disclosure, trust) are likely to be less reliable than a number of items measuring the same quality taken as a single score. However, looking for such consistency remains an important task because of implications for prevention and early and late intervention, and it is to this task that this review now turns.

The term delinquency is defined as a pattern of "illegal behavior committed by a minor" (Shaw, 1983, p. 880) and it implies that the adolescent places him or herself in opposition to those in positions of authority (Shaw, 1983, p. 889). Thus, it is not surprising to find that delinquents experience greater conflict and lower cohesion within their families as compared with nondelinquents (Matlack, McGreevy, Rouse, Flatter, & Marcus (1994); Simons et al., 1991; Veneziano & Veneziano, 1988; Reinherz & Frost, 1992; Windle, 1992; Tolan, 1988). Similarly, the conflict does not appear to end with family members but extends to friendship relationships in which delinquents evidence greater conflict with friends than do nondelinquents (Claes & Simard, 1992; Giordano, Cernkovich, & Pugh, 1986; Simons et al., 1991). While it is sometimes thought that delinquents, faced with greater conflict and less emotional support at home, seek out peers as a replacement, there appears to be little difference between peer and family emotional climate. Research shows that delinquent friendships are shorter in duration as compared with those of nondelinquents, 2.5 vs. 3.17 years, respectively (Claes & Simard, 1992), and that they are more unstable (Pakiz et al.,1991). While, to the contrary, Giordano et al. (1986) found no significant difference in duration of friendship as it relates to delinquency within a sample of 12 to 19-year olds, their sample was a mainstream group who self-reported their delinquent behaviors while the Claes & Simard (1992) sample consisted of adjudicated delinquents within a juvenile shelter facility and thus may have shown greater social pathology. Claes and Simard (1992) also found delinquents to have fewer intimate friends than did nondelinquents.

Social-Cognitive Processes

The greater instability and conflict within friendships for delinquents can be linked to a number of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional characteristics which are both qualitatively unique and quantitatively deficient or excessive, as compared with nondelinquents. Social-cognitive differences between delinquents and nondelinquents are well established in the research literature and clearly likely to contribute to problems in the maintenance and initiation of friendships. For example, major disagreements among delinquents may be intensified by attributional factors, which then lead to the termination of friendships (Hymel, 1986). Slaby and Guerra (1988) found that antisocial and aggressive adolescents (vs. low aggression and vs. high aggression but nonantisocial adolescents) were more likely to hold beliefs supporting the use of aggression. The antisocial and aggressive adolescents believed the following: (1) that aggression is a legitimate response; (2) aggression increases self-esteem; (3) aggression helps avoid a negative image; and (4) aggression does not lead to suffering of the victim. In addition, Slaby and Guerra (1988) found six social problem-solving skills that correlated positively with adolescent aggression: (1) defining a social problem based upon a perception of hostility; (2) setting a goal consistent with that perception of hostility; (3) searching for few facts; (4) generating few alternative solutions; (5) generating few consequences for an aggressive solution; (6) prioritizing in favor of ineffective (i.e., aggressive or hostile) solutions). Thus, since delinquency and aggression tend to be highly correlated (Achenbach & Adelbrock, 1983; Pakiz et al., 1992) the belief system fostering aggressive solutions, readiness to react with fighting responses, and little appreciation of the impact their behavior has on peers would very likely promote conflict within friendships and, consequently, greater instability. Further, delinquents appear to have greater difficulty than nondelinquents in perceiving that they would be able to avoid negative consequences of their behavior. Oyserman and Markus (1990) investigated the self-concepts of delinquent youths and found them to lack a balance in their possible selves. For example, they may fear being a criminal but have no expectation that they would be able to avoid crime.

There have been numerous studies of social skills deficiencies of delinquents, ranging from the cognitive to the behavioral. For the most part the studies utilize some form of measure which presents social problems requiring a solution or employs some measure of personality which has social importance or impact. The studies of social problem solving can be summarized as revealing the following about delinquents: (1) delinquents are less socially competent than nondelinquents in terms of having successful solutions to various social situations (Freedman et al., 1978); (2) the more serious the offense the less socially competent the delinquent (Simonian, Tarnowski, & Gibbs, 1991; Veneziano & Veneziano, 1988); (3) social competency is poorest when the situation arouses anger or does not allow much time for consideration of response options (Simonian et al., 1991; Matlack et al., 1994); and (4) the greater the self-reported delinquency, the more impulsive the individual (Mak, 1990, 1991). In the absence of normal social skills, the degree of conflict would be greater and both the initiation and maintenance of friendships are likely to prove more difficult.

Emotional Quality of the Friendship

The issue of whether delinquent friendships are similar or different in emotional quality from those of nondelinquents has generated considerable controversy over the last 30 years. Recent theories about attachment beyond infancy, but based upon conceptualizations developed around mother-infant attachment, suggest that friendships may have attachment qualities when they possess the following: (1) are dyadic (not group) and focused, and are sufficiently close and enduring to be characterized as an affectional bond; (2) are unique and not duplicated by other relationships; (3) provide care and protection, felt security, anxiety over separation and grief reactions should loss occur (Ainsworth, 1989). Controversy has been generated by Hirschi's (1969) social control theory, which postulates that delinquents fail to develop adequate attachment or bonding to peers, parents or society, and this plays a key role in the development of delinquent behavior. Hirschi (1969) evaluated attachment using measures of liking for friends, identification with the peer, wishes to be like the friend, and respect for the friend's opinions. When accompanied by attachment to parents, commitment to conventional goals or actions, involvement in conventional activities, and holding of conventional beliefs that forbid delinquency, such friendship attachments precede the healthy acceptance of social control over youth behavior which is needed to prevent delinquency.

The opposing point of view can be found in cultural deviance theories such as those of differential association (Sutherland & Cressey, 1978), and social learning theories (Akers, 1985). Such theories propose that the attachments of delinquents are no different from those of nondelinquent adolescents. Sutherland and Cressey (1966) assert that delinquency is the effect of group influences, particularly those which lead the individual to learn the techniques, motives, and drives involved in committing deviant acts. Relationships between delinquents are said to be as "sociable" and "gregarious" (Sutherland & Cressey, 1978) and as "warm" (Thrasher, 1963) as those between nondelinquents. Similarly, Hansell and Wiatrowski (1981) propose a social learning model in which delinquents are said to have good social skills and peer relationships which are as rewarding and stable as those of nondelinquents.

The growing body of data pitting the two theories against one another has revealed both consistency and inconsistency depending upon which aspect of friendship was studied, the samples used, and methodology employed. Studies supportive of Hirschi's (1969) social control theory start with Hirschi's own research. He reported a moderately strong, inverse association between attachment to friends and delinquency. Linden and Fillmore (1981) found that both attachment to peers and to conventional society (i.e., school, parents) predicted delinquency more efficiently than did either factor alone. Brownfield and Thompson (1991) found partial support for Hirschi's theory. While self-reported delinquency was unrelated to measures of attachment to best friends (e.g., sharing thoughts and feelings), measures of "trust" and "respect" vs friends in general were negatively related to delinquency.

A number of studies have failed to find differences in favor of the better quality of nondelinquent friendships. A failure to find differences may be due to variations in sample characteristics or variables studied. Giordano et al. (1986) found no differences in "caring" or "trust" across levels of delinquency. Claes and Simard (1992) found no differences between delinquent and nondelinquent boys and girls on scales measuring "trust" and "communication." Similarly, items measuring self-disclosure, empathy, sharing, affection, and loyalty (taken together said to measure intimacy) showed no differences between delinquents and nondelinquents. However, they did find that delinquents report more feelings of being different from others, as well as feelings of being ridiculed, being ganged up on or being rejected by the group. The authors concluded that, despite greater conflict than in the case of nondelinquents, the delinquent is capable of normal emotional attachment as well as a good quality friendship. Thus delinquents appear to be more concerned about the negative and conflictual aspects of friendships. Finally, Hindelang (1973) used measures off attachment identical to those used by Hirschi (1969) and found that delinquency is associated with higher scores on peer-attachment variables.

As alluded to earlier, there are a number of possible reasons for the inconsistency in results comparing the two groups. A key emotional component for attachment researchers in the psychological literature has been "felt security" (Ainsworth, 1989). None of the above studies have examined the extent to which one feels secure in the friendship. Claes and Simard (1992) do acknowledge greater conflict in delinquent friendships in terms of fears of rejection, ridicule, lack of understanding, and embarrassment, which could suggest insecurity. Security would take into account both the positive emotional features of friendship (i.e., trust, communication, empathy) minus the conflictual elements. Secondly, applying the term "attachment" to such diverse concepts as trust, communication, respect, caring, liking, and identification, suggests that there is conceptual and empirical unity to such an amalgam. This has not been demonstrated empirically at this point in time. When, on the other hand, multiple-item (and therefore more reliable) measures of empathy, for example, are constructed to show internal consistency and conceptual unity, higher scores for nondelinquents vs. delinquents have been found (Mak, 1990, 1991; Hogan, 1969). When attachment is conceptualized as "felt security," there is some nascent research which finds differences in favor of nondelinquents (Redondo, Martin, Fernandez, & Lopez, 1986). Rice's (1990) meta-analytic review of 24 studies showed that attachment to parents and friends was related and that attachment to parents was related to indices of adolescent adjustment, social competence, and self-esteem. Thus, again, the poorer adjustment of adolescents and delinquents are likely to covary with poorer quality peer attachments. A recently developed measure of attachment, The Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA) (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Greenberg et al., 1953), specifically the peer attachment component, has been found to be related to problem-solving strategies, social self-concept, and loneliness. Again, this suggests that poorer social adjustment would be positively related to insecure peer attachment. While Claes and Simard (1992) failed to find differences between delinquent and nondelinquent samples on the IPPA, it may be that utilizing a scoring system in which alienation (conflict) scores are subtracted from the trust plus communication scores (see Rice, 1990, p. 518 for this recommendation) would reveal such differences.

Self-disclosure is a qualitative aspect of relationships which appears more in delinquent than nondelinquent friendships. Douvan and Adelson (1966) had speculated that delinquents might show better qualitative aspects of friendships because of the greater need for loyalty and secrecy. Secondly, they suggested that greater conflict in delinquent relationships would require more efforts toward repairing the relationship so as not to experience loneliness and isolation. Giordano et al., (1966) found that those adolescents with greater delinquency involvement, versus those with less, showed greater self-disclosure, reaped certain tangibles from the relationship, strived for greater social status, showed greater imbalance (i.e., lack of equality or reciprocity and feelings of jealousy or competition) and showed greater loyalty in the face of trouble. The authors do not see this as support for control theory's postulation of delinquent friendships as "cold" or "brittle" but they do see conflict as detracting from intimacy. Further, the authors found no differences in "caring and trust," talk about school, and self-confirmation. The greater emphasis by delinquents on factors external to the relationship, such as status, tangible rewards, response to trouble, and reciprocal peer influences, suggests greater emphasis on both internal and external factors in friendships. One could say, alternately, that in nondelinquent, it may be the caring and trust plus clear reciprocity, minimal conflict, and lack of interest in external threat which distinguishes it from delinquent friendships.

Differences in Overt Behavior

Direct observation of overt behavior in delinquents, either by a third party or self-observation, has generally shown that many "colder" behaviors are present in all relationships with others. Aggressive behavior, most often defined as hurting others or destroying things (Feshbach, 1970) has been found more commonly in delinquents than in nondelinquents (Pakiz et al., 1992; Glueck & Glueck, 1959; Achenbach & Edlebrock, 1983; Bandura, 1973) as has impulsive behavior (Mak, 1990, 1991). Simons et al. (1991) found that a coercive interpersonal style originated within the family (namely through "inept" parenting) which then had direct influence over the development of coercive relations with peers and led eventually to delinquent behavior. Cairns and Cairns (1991) do not dispute the idea that delinquents are more aggressive but, instead, theorize that aggression may not interfere with satisfaction of intimacy needs because they lead to formation of peer relationships which are out of the mainstream. They reason that although aggressive children are less popular with peers, violate more norms in school, and threaten authority in school, such aggressivity eliminates friendships with mainstream children while leading the aggressive child to gravitate toward sub-groups which prize aggression. Aggressive children are accepted into such groups based upon their similarity with members (i.e., age, gender, salient "acting out" behavior, and aggression). They are then subjected to pressure for new unconventional behaviors (i.e., sex, violence, drugs, criminal activity). Such peer clusters are hypothesized to provide for intimacy, help to define personal identity, and pressure the individual with threatened ostracism and character defamation. Thus, while intimacy needs are met to some extent, aggression is also likely to lead to greater conflict and insecurity.

Empathy and cognitive role taking serve a reparative function in interpersonal relationships in that they facilitate resolution of conflict and promote warmer relationships. Empathy has been found to facilitate various prosocial behaviors as well to curb aggressive behavior (Eisenberg, 1986). Empathy, stated earlier to be comprised of both cognitive understanding and feelings of compassion for others, has been found to be deficient in delinquent adolescents (Mak, 1990, 1991; Hogan, 1969; Eysenck & McGurk, 1980; Kurtines & Hogan, 1972; Rotenberg, 1974) In terms of friendship relationships, empathy is seen as playing an important role in promoting the final stage of adolescent friendship formation in which internal psychological states such as intimacy, trust, self-disclosure, and personal dispositions are employed (Erwin, 1993, p. 49). Thus delinquents are likely to show some limitations in relationships which require highly refined measures to uncover. Similarly, the ability to take the role of another, to put one's self in another's shoes, is important to intimacy and interdependence, respect for the other's autonomy (Selman, 1981), achieving greater popularity (Spence, 1987), and the ability to infer the needs of others and respond more flexibility in role performance (Erwin, 1993, p. 42). Greater role-taking ability is also associated with more prosocial interactions and lower levels off aggressiveness with peers (Selman, 1980). Delinquents have been found to be deficient in role-taking ability in a few research studies (Ollendick & Hensen, 1979; Rotenberg, 1974), thus, again suggesting limitations to friendships which nondelinquents do not have.


The studies reviewed here reveal a number of trends in the contrasts of the friendships of delinquents and nondelinquents despite variations in measurement and sample characteristics. With the exception of one study, which showed greater loyalty and self-disclosure within delinquent friendships, there is little evidence for the superior quality of delinquent friendships over friendships of nondelinquents. When evidence of differences is found, the results relating to "warmer" qualities usually show greater empathy, liking, respect, identification, and felt security in nondelinquent friendships. What is clearly not in dispute is the presence of greater conflict in all relationships of delinquents, which reduces the quality and stability of such friendships. Within the friendships of delinquents, more arguments, greater aggressive and impulsive behavior, poorer social-cognitive problem-solving skills, perceptual and cognitive distortions, and poorer reparative skills (i.e., empathy and role taking), all suggest greater conflict and instability in the friendships of delinquents. Interventions targeted at reduction of conflict as well as enhancement of "warmer" qualities would seem to be justified by the research findings.

Further investigation of differences between the friendships of delinquents and nondelinquents would benefit from a focus on male-female differences and differences between female delinquent and nondelinquent groups. Females are likely to show greater variability in "warmer" qualities, albeit less variability in delinquent behaviors. Therefore, at least one of the variables under study would show considerable variability in the nondelinquent population, thereby enhancing the likelihood of finding relations if they do exist. Secondly, use of standardized measures of attachment (i.e., those showing reliability and validity) need to be employed. Such measures as single-index or multiple-index measures have not been shown to have empirical or conceptual unity. Such measures should also take account of both "warmer" qualities shown toward friends as well as the degree of conflict and hostility shown to friends, since the latter have been found to qualify the relationships in important ways. Once such measures have been found to reliably differentiate among delinquents and nondelinquents, a search for antecedents in early and middle childhood could identify the paths by which such friendships come about and their roles in the development of delinquency.


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Author:Marcus, Robert F.
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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