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Juvenile delinquency in girls

Updated on May 10, 2012

Girls and delinquency - what does the research tell us?

Research has already established a link between depression and delinquent behaviors in girls, but the latest studies question the directionality of the link. Do girls tend to act out because they're depressed or is acting out a precursor to later depression? This clearly has important implications for treatment.

The Science Daily, 2009 states " Past behavior is generally considered to be a good predictor of future behavior, but new research indicates that may not be the case in the development of depression, particularly among adolescent girls."

University of Washington social scientists tracked first- and second-graders for seven years and found that anti-social behavior among girls and anxiety among both sexes predicted depression in early adolescence. Surprisingly, early signs of depression were not predictive of adolescent depression.

Our theories of delinquency and acting out behavior have, for many years, focused largely on boys. While boys tend to have a higher rate of delinquent behaviors on the whole. "Anti-social behavior has typically been viewed as a big problem among boys, so it tends to be ignored among girls. Boys with early anti-social behavior typically go on to show more anti-social behavior while girls may turn inward with symptoms, morphing into other mental health problems such as depression eating disorders, anxiety and suicidal behavior during adolescence ," said James Mazza, a UW professor of educational psychology and lead author of the new study.

Girls are not unique in sharing a high co morbidity with behavior and mood disorders, this has been found with boys too, with some studies suggesting that up to 75% of children currently in our juvenile justice system have coexisting mental disorders. It seems that, regardless of how mood disorders and acting out behaviors are linked, we should be paying attention to the antecedents, not just the consequences of these kids' behaviors.

Another significant finding from recent research is that the researchers found that young children can accurately identify themselves as being anxious and depressed, suggesting that early mental health screenings may provide valuable and accurate information about the incidence of childhood depression, anxiety and other emotional difficulties and that children are actually good, accurate historians of their emotional states.

What should we get from this? If your child starts talking about being depressed and/or anxious, take them seriously and consider getting a professional opinion and be aware that kids talk with their behavior, sometimes behaviors which just seem mean and spiteful are actually a cry for help. Many parents have been told that "all kids go through stages". While this is true, any emotional or behavioral difficulty that is ongoing may be cause for concern.

Recent research confirms a surge in crimes committed by girls. Until now, girls and boys have been treated with the same methods and intervention, however, the most recent research seems to suggest a different developmental pathway to delinquent behavior in boys and girls, and therefore different treatment options.

Early adolescence is frequently when episodes of depression become more evident, with girls exhibiting a higher rate of symptoms than boys. Despite this depression is not often recognized or diagnosed until the middle and high school years. There is clearly a complex developmental pathway to delinquent behaviors in girls, and significant evidence that these behaviors are associated with significant mood disturbances and/or anxiety.

Traditionally, children who commit crimes are kept in juvenile halls. Again, until now, many of these facilities had no difference in programs or treatment for girls and boys. Generally, kids are kept in individual cells. We now know from research into girl's development that they are more relationship and socially oriented than boys, they also have higher rates of mood disorders and tend to be more sensitive to environmental conditions such as isolation. Our primary method of treatment, therefore, may actually exacerbate this condition in girls.

Girl Trouble

Much of the research into gender specific programming with girls has been positive. There have been several group models developed with a focus on trying to understand girl's in the juvenile justice system and empower them to make positive choices for themselves. Poor self esteem commonly underlies a variety of acting out behaviors in both girls and boys, but girls often face a tougher social standard, perceived or real, in which they are expected to be all things to all people, while still being thin, gorgeous and preferably not too smart.

Focusing on a relational understanding of girl's decisions and placing it in a social context, while providing positive modeling, self esteem building, coping skills and role play seems to be able to reach girls in a way in which our traditional - sit there until you're sorry- approach has been unable to. These are kids in pain with no idea of how to explain what is going on inside them and often no idea of why they do the things they do.

Traditionally the focus has been on making the kid admit remorse and verbalize what they would do differently, does it work? not really, but we keep doing it. What tends to happen with these kids is that, when faced with an authority demanding submission - in whatever form it touches a nerve - because they're at that I'm going to be me stage, and how do you know who you are when you don't know who you are?......You define who and what you're not and most parents provide an ample supply of ammunition.

So, revisiting the above approach, while it may make perfect sense in an adult world, most kids say whatever they think you want to hear, without meaning it or exactly the opposite of what you want to hear. So, it becomes a battle of wills - you will, I won't, you will, you can't make me....and to an adolescent, this is a fight about their very essence - regardless of what it's really about, so it feels like a very real threat or impingement.

We recognize when kids cross a legal boundary, without recognizing how they got there - and then we respond by trying to shut down the symptoms and just hoping they'll go away, and if not, we issue further punishment and begin to view the child more and more as a criminal in training, but if 75% of our kids in juvenile halls have mental disorders contributing or exacerbating their behaviors, it seems to beg the question - why are we not treating these children? We are essentially taking children with mental health issues, and putting them in prisons, which is pretty much what we did at the turn of the century.

I don't mean that these kids shouldn't take responsibility for their behaviors, and there are plenty of ways to do that outside of incarceration, but if we really want them to stop, shouldn't we be treating then, rather than training them for the adult justice system?

Teen violence forum

I think part of where we've gone wrong is that we think that we, and I mean, adults in general assume that we are the center of our kids world - so surely they should listen to us, I mean we know, right? - but think about it, we shouldn't be, they're not at that age anymore. We should be the back up, the taxi cab the shoulder to cry on, but the healthy thing for adolescents to be doing is establishing themselves and developing their world - with their peers!

So, really, if we want to impact adolescents' behavior, particularly girls, shouldn't we be talking to them and asking them how we should respond, after all, have you ever seen a teenager? They have more technological-keep-in-touch apparatus than James Bond- cell phones, texting, Im'ing, the threat of cell phone removal will bring almost any teenager to tears and promises. Shouldn't we be mining that?

Girls love to talk, to socialize, to get the up to the minute gossip, surely there's a way to positively influence young girls through this media, I mean, you have a captive audience. Kids, particularly girls are the best way to get information spread - ask anyone whose told their best girlfriend a secret, they like to share. If we used these kids' ideas and got it out there, surely it beats the alternative?

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