Both peer and parent behaviors affect teen gang activity

November 21, 2001

A new study confirms that parental behavior can affect how likely teenagers are to join a gang or participate in gang delinquency.

But the study also reveals that the same behaviors that discourage gang activity in teens from one ethnic group might have no effect, or even encourage gang activity, in teens from a different ethnic group.

The same research indicates that gang intervention programs, which often focus on teens' peer relationships, could be more effective if they also addressed the parent-teen relationship.

"Parents are not powerless," says lead author Chanequa J. Walker-Barnes, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the November/December issue of Child Development.

Previous studies on the interplay of family environment and teen gang activity have not accounted for the fact that "the effect of family environment may be different for adolescents from different ethnic backgrounds," she says.

Walker-Barnes treated the 300 Miami ninth-graders who participated in her study not only as members of one large group, but also as members of three ethnic subgroups: Hispanic (54 percent), black/African-American (25 percent) and white/other (21 percent).

This strategy revealed significant ethnic differences. For example, Walker-Barnes' analysis of the entire group revealed no links between how controlling parents are and how their children's levels of gang involvement change over the course of a school year. However, when ethnicity was taken into account, it became apparent that black youth whose parents exert more behavioral control tend to become less involved with gangs during the course of a school year, while white/other youth with more controlling parents become more involved.

These and other findings, Walker-Barnes says, "highlight the need for different treatment strategies for youth from different ethnic backgrounds." In particular, she observes, "programs ... which emphasize increasing parental control and supervision over adolescents' daily activities" appear appropriate for black teens.

Another distinguishing mark of Walker-Barnes' approach is her examination of both peer and parental influences. Previous researchers have tended to examine one or the other, making it difficult to determine whether gang intervention programs should focus on peer gang activity, teen-parent relationships, or both.

Her findings indicate that both exert a strong influence and should be addressed. The teens in her study group who had the most gang-involved peers also had the highest rates of gang involvement and participation in gang delinquency, both at the beginning of the school year and at its end. During that time, however, the number of delinquent behaviors that Hispanic teens engaged in tended to increase if the parents were less controlling and decrease if the parents were more controlling.

Walker-Barnes' findings contradict previous conclusions, such as the National Research Council's 1993 statement that "the effect of deviant peers during adolescence for African-American youth is overwhelming and may not be offset by parenting." According to her, "... parents are not powerless in impacting adolescent behavior even with the existence of a negative peer group."
The research was supported by a National Institutes of Mental Health grant.

Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, contact Jonathan J. Aiken at (734) 998-7310.

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